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The rise of a sensory style?

I ended my last post, on colors, by speculating that the best explanation for the rise of color vocabulary from 1820 to 1940 might simply be “a growing insistence on concrete and vivid sensory detail.” Here’s the graph once again to illustrate the shape of the trend.

blue, red, green, yellow, in the English fiction corpus, 1800-2000

It occurred to me that one might try to confirm this explanation by seeing what happened to other words that describe fairly basic sensory categories. Would words like “hot” and “cold” change in strongly correlated ways, as the names of primary colors did? And if so, would they increase in frequency across the same period from 1820 to 1940?

The results were interesting.

cold, hot, in the English fiction corpus, 1800-2000

“Hot” and “cold” track each other closely. There is indeed a low around 1820 and a peak around 1940. “Cold” increases by about 60%, “hot” by more than 100%.

cool, warm, in the English fiction corpus, 1800-2000

“Warm” and “cool” are also strongly correlated, increasing by more than 50%, with a low around 1820 and a high around 1940 — although “cool” doesn’t decline much from its high, probably because the word acquires an important new meaning related to style.

wet, dry, in the English fiction corpus, 1800-2000

“Wet” and “dry” correlate strongly, and they both double in frequency. Once again, a low around 1820 and a peak around 1940, at which point the trend reverses.

There’s a lot of room for further investigation here. I think I glimpse a loosely similar pattern in words for texture (hard/soft and maybe rough/smooth), but it’s not clear whether the same pattern will hold true for the senses of smell, hearing, or taste.

More crucially, I have absolutely no idea why these curves head up in 1820 and reverse direction in 1940. To answer that question we would need to think harder about the way these kinds of adjectives actually function in specific works of fiction. But it’s beginning to seem likely that the pattern I noticed in color vocabulary is indeed part of a broader trend toward a heightened emphasis on basic sensory adjectives — at least in English fiction. I’m not sure that we literary critics have an adequate name for this yet. “Realism” and “naturalism” can only describe parts of a trend that extends from 1820 to 1940.

More generally, I feel like I’m learning that the words describing different poles or aspects of a fundamental opposition often move up or down as a unit. The whole semantic distinction seems to become more prominent or less so. This doesn’t happen in every case, but it happens too often to be accidental. Somewhere, Claude Lévi-Strauss can feel pretty pleased with himself.

19c 20c ngrams


It’s tempting to use the ngram viewer to stage semantic contrasts (efficiency vs. pleasure). It can be more useful to explore cases of semantic replacement (liberty vs. freedom). But a third category of comparison, perhaps even more interesting, involves groups of words that parallel each other quite closely as the whole group increases or decreases in prominence.

One example that is conveniently easy to visualize involves colors.

blue, red, green, yellow, in the English corpus, 1800-2000

The trajectories of primary colors parallel each other very closely. They increase in frequency through the nineteenth century, peak in a period between 1900 and 1945, and then decline to a low around 1985, with some signs of recovery. (The recovery is more marked after 2000, but that data may not be reliable yet.) Blue increases most, by a factor of almost three, and green the least, by about 50%. Red and yellow roughly double in frequency.

Perhaps red increases because of red-baiting, and blue increases because jazz singers start to use it metaphorically? Perhaps. But the big picture here is that the relative prominence of different colors remains fairly stable (red being always most prominent), while they increase and decline significantly as a group. This is a bit surprising. Color seems like a basic dimension of human experience, and you wouldn’t expect its importance to fluctuate. (If you graph the numbers one, two, three, for instance, you get fairly flat lines all the way across.)

What about technological change? Color photography is really too late to be useful. Maybe synthetic dyes? They start to arrive on the scene in the 1860s, which is also a little late, since the curves really head up around 1840, but it’s conceivable that a consumer culture with a broader range of artefacts brightly differentiated by color might play a role here. If you graph British usage, there’s even an initial peak in the 1860s and 70s that looks plausibly related to the advent of synthetic dye.

blue, red, green, yellow, in the British corpus, 1800-2000

On the other hand, if this is a technological change, it’s a little surprising that it looks so different in different national traditions. (The French and German corpora may not be reliable yet, but at this point their colors behave altogether differently.) Moreover, a hypothesis about synthetic dyes wouldn’t do much to explain the equally significant decline from the 1950s to the 1980s. Maybe the problem is that we’re only looking at primary colors. Perhaps in the twentieth century a broader range of words for secondary colors proliferated, and subtracted from the frequency of words like red and green?
lavender, pink, indigo, brown, gray, purple, in English corpus, 1800-2000

This is a hard hypothesis to test, because there are a lot of different words for color, and you’d need to explore perhaps a hundred before you had a firm answer. But at first glance, it doesn’t seem very helpful, because a lot of words for minor colors exhibit a pattern that closely resembles primary colors. Brown, gray, purple, and pink — the leaders in the graph above — all decline from 1950 to 1980. Even black and white (not graphed here) don’t help very much; they display a similar pattern of increase beginning around 1840 and decrease beginning around 1940, until the 1960s, when the racial meanings of the terms begin to clearly dominate other kinds of variation.

At the moment, I think we’re simply looking at a broad transformation of descriptive style that involves a growing insistence on concrete and vivid sensory detail. One word for this insistence might be “realism.” We ordinarily apply that word to fiction, of course, and it’s worth noting that the increase in color vocabulary does seem to begin slightly earlier in the corpus of fiction — as early perhaps as the 1820s.

blue, red, green, yellow, in English Fiction, 1800-2000

But “realism,” “naturalism,” “imagism,” and so on are probably not adequate words for a transformation of diction that covers many different genres and proceeds for more than a century. (It proceeds fairly steadily, although I would really like to understand that plateau from 1860 to 1890.) More work needs to be done to understand this. But the example of color vocabulary already hints, I think, that broadly diachronic studies of diction may turn up literary phenomena that don’t fit easily into literary scholars’ existing grid of periods and genres. We may need to define a few new concepts.