NOW’S A GREAT time to be alive if you love searching for patterns in data. One among many examples of this is the Google Ngram Viewer. It can hurry through a database of several million digitised books to generate a plot of how the popularity of a word or phrase changes over time.
Last year I wrote this post about sound descriptions in 19th-century newspapers, made possible by using the British Newspaper Archive. It was striking how the journalists of those times used a rich and wide vocabulary to describe sound, much more so than you’d come across in today’s newspapers.
To see whether this pattern is confirmed across English literature in general over the past two centuries, I drew up a list of a few dozen sound-related words and made Google ngram plots for them. At first it seemed to confirm those suspicions. Virtually all such words showed a marked decrease in frequency during the 20th century.
But this was partly an artefact of the database selected: British English. This includes non-fiction works, such as technical books and other pragmatic works. It’s possible that such books tend not to have many sensory descriptions and that their numbers have increased over time relative to fiction.
So, with the English fiction database selected instead, I made a quick survey of the fortunes of 45 sound-words. A more complex pattern emerges, with some words becoming more popular and others less. Of course, you could easily expand that list five-fold, spend a year investigating the contexts in which the words were used, and get yourself a Masters degree. But this is just a blog post.
The words din, uproar, racket, clamour (plus the American clamor) and hubbub often apply to mass noise-making entities such as crowds, flocks and herds, or to collections of machinery, such as inside a factory. Din shows a slight decrease since the early 19th century, clamour and uproar decline markedly during the 20th century, hubbub shows a gentler decline, and racket enjoys a surge in popularity towards the middle of the 20th century before declining. There is a confounding factor with racket‘s other meaning as a criminal or shady enterprise, perhaps linked with Prohibition and illegal gambling.
Bang, boom, clatter, and clang generally suggest loud or short-lived percussive and explosive sounds. Rumble is more ambiguous and can apply across many domains: thunder, distant gunfire, squadrons of aircraft, traffic and so on. Unsurprisingly these all increase during the Industrial Revolution. Boom shows peaks towards the end and just after the First World War, and during the Second World War. It also has obvious other meanings connected with the economy and sales.
Buzz, hum and honk originate as sounds usually made by people and animals but progressively apply to mechanical sounds. Honk, once the habit of geese, shows a marked increase in usage with the advent of the motor car. Whirr applies to fast-moving mechanisms and also has a visual aspect, suggesting something so rapid that it can’t be seen clearly. Rattle is confounded with the noun but also shows a decline from the early half of the 20th century, perhaps reflecting audible changes in how machines function and are put together.
Chime, tinkle, jingle and clink all increase in frequency over the last two centuries, with tinkle showing a later decline, perhaps because modern writers find it a little too pretty. Peal shows a dramatic slump in popularity, presumably matching the church’s loss of pre-eminence.
Sound-words for unrestrained vocalisations have generally done well over time, although shout and roar have declined somewhat in popularity since the mid-20th century. Yell shows a peak during the Second World War, followed by a drop, and then a steady increase. This perhaps reflects a shift in the word’s popular usage from the context of conflict towards signifying exuberance. Scream‘s dramatic rise since about 1970 suggests a darker turn in fiction towards horror and individualised violence.
Groan, moan and whine pick up in popularity towards the end of the 20th century, with the first two probably enjoying sexual connotations which they hadn’t had in earlier fiction. Wail has shown little overall change since the 1880s, and bawl is at its most popular during the early and mid-20th century.
One of the best ways for a sound-word associated with animals to thrive is to encompass some human sound or to expand to take in a mechanical sound, as with honk earlier or, too recent to show up in the results, tweet. Grunt, howl and bellow can apply both to human and animal vocalisations and so enjoy sustained popularity. So too does bleat, although this has always been less common throughout the last two centuries. Neigh, however, is something only horses do and predictably it has steadily declined along with the importance of horse-power in daily life.
What are generally thought of as onomatopoeic animal sound-words are in fact somewhat formalised and can vary considerably across languages. Pigs in the English-speaking world are said to go oink oink but their Japanese equivalents sound like boo boo. The pattern is one of general decline over the last century for woof and baa, although the latter shows a curious surge during the Second World War period – why might this be? Moo holds steady during most of the 20th century before a decline towards the end. Oink appears too rare to discern any meaningful trend, and miaow (and the American meow) is alone in becoming more popular, perhaps as cats become the pet of choice for urbanites living by themselves.
Variations in the frequency of melody and harmony track each other closely, suggesting that they’re often mentioned together in the same books. In the early 19th century, treble is more popular than bass but this reverses by the latter part of the century and the gap has grown wider ever since. The most striking feature of the ngram is the rise of rhythm to pre-eminence from the 1930s onwards, reflecting fundamental changes in the style of popular music.
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