Friday, December 17, 2010

Where have all the colors gone?

Finals are over and it's slow on the desk, so I'm playing with Google's latest toy: the Google Books Ngram Viewer. You can graph the usage of words found in Google's collection of scanned books, one at a time, or comparing one phrase against another. It's quite addictive.

But here's a weird trend that I found. If you search for simple words, there's a tendency for their frequency to drop somewhere around 1950, and then begin rising again in the 1990's. Here's a graph of the words blue, red, green, and yellow between 1900 and 2008. Each of them shows this same patter. (I've cleverly arranged for each word to show up in its proper color so that you don't have to read the tiny text)

Other common words show the same thing. For example, man, boy, and girl show that same dip and recovery. Woman appears to start down the same path, and then gets a sudden boost in the mid-1960's. (Damn you, Betty Friedan, for messing with my data!)

Recall that the y-axis represents the frequency of these words compared to other words appearing in print. Did postwar publishing trend away from simpler terms (I mean, "eschew monosyllabary")? And what about the recent trend back upwards? There's been a boom in children's and young adult literature in the past decade or more, but would it make up such a large proportion of publishing as to explain why simpler words are becoming more common again? That's the best guess I have, but I'm none too confident in it. Ideas?

1 comment:

Heidi said...

I think the trend away from monosyllabic words was because publishers were trying to satisfy their audience, who in the mid-twentieth century was well well-educated and well-to-do. Common folk could get books out of libraries, or be entertained by the radio or television. As the book-buying audience declined with the use of computers, cable, and movie rentals and such, publishers decided to broaden the appeal of their books by writing more easily read books. My brother-in-law was responsible for writing Macintosh computer instruction manuals about 25 years ago - and he was told to write them for a 4th grade reading level. SAT scores were renormed about 12 years ago - lowering the expected reading level. Red and yellow are colors we all know. Fuschia and magenta are not. Who wants to read a book where you have to look up every other word? For beginning readers, a book which has 5 or more unfamiliar words on the page is considered too difficult. Today's book publishers don't want their product to be inaccessible to the masses.