Summer Pulls Ahead
of Winter in Eight Languages!
A search for the words "summer"
and "winter" in online linguistic corpora reveals that references to "summer" (in published
books) have come from behind to surpass those of "winter"
during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,
in eight different
languages. This reversal in the relative
frequencies of "summer" and "winter" is shown in the graphs
of the Google Books Ngram Viewer
for Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Russian, and
Spanish, and likewise for Portuguese in Mark Davies's Corpus do
Viewer also represents books published in Hebrew, but the
summer/winter reversal is not clear-cut in that
language. "Summer" (קיץ) is more frequent than "winter"
(חורף) from the 1840s to the present consistently, as well as prior to that period
generally. I am not qualified to say how faithfully
these words correspond to English summer
and winter, in a
language that presumably originated in a climate different
from that of England. (You can view
the graph for Hebrew online, remembering that the red
line is for "summer" and blue for "winter".)
Nor am I prepared to speculate at this moment on any cultural implications that
the summer/winter reversal may support—I will leave that
exercise to the culturomicists.
My aim here is simply to present the data on the frequency
of "summer" and "winter" over time in the eight corpora.
For English generally, the Ngram
graphs for "summer" and "winter" are never far apart from the
early 1800s to the present, and in fact beginning around
1810 they follow similar curves, going up together and down
together. But they do cross: In 1820 the
frequency of "summer" is about five sixths that of
"winter"; then, for a period centered around 1880, they are
nearly equal; and finally by 2000, the frequency of "summer"
has risen to more than 1½ times that of
"winter". You can view
the graph online.
Prior to 1800 the picture is very
different: "winter" is even more frequent, compared to
"summer". In fact, from about 1720 to about 1790,
summer is hardly mentioned at all, compared to winter.
But caveat lector:
the makers of the Ngram Viewer point out that relatively few
books were published before the nineteenth century, and this
makes it easy for small differences to be drastically
magnified, even if they are not statistically significant.
English, unlike the other languages
counted, can be subdivided into American, British,
fictional, and "English One Million", which is a modified
form of the English corpus that equalizes the number of
books representing each year, in order to reduce the
"magnifying" effect mentioned above. In each of these
subdivisions of English, "winter" starts out more frequent
than "summer" and ends up less so, with the crossover period
in the mid-nineteenth century.
French for "summer" is été, but
that is also
participle of the extremely frequent verb être "to
be". In order to count only the noun, I searched for
it (and for French "winter") in combination with the
definite article: l'été
respectively. Again, "winter" is more frequent than
"summer" all through the nineteenth century and up until the
early 1940s, when both lines on the graph take a slight,
temporary bump up in popularity, after which "summer" is
more frequent—about 70% more so by 2000. (View
The German words for "summer" and
"winter" are Sommer
The nineteenth century begins with winter somewhat more
frequent than summer. From around 1860 to 1900 they
are approximately equal, and then in the twentieth century
"summer" gradually pulls ahead, rising to about one and two
thirds the frequency of "winter" by 2000. (View
The Italian words for "summer" and
"winter" are estate and inverno. The
frequency of "winter" is almost twice that of "summer" for
most of the years from about 1750 to about 1850.
Summer finally surpasses winter in the mid-1950s, and is
exceeding it by some 30% at the end of the 20th century.
The Russian words for "summer" and
"winter" are лето
respectively, which might be transliterated as léto and zimá.
Prior to 1840, "winter" is far more frequent than
"summer". Beginning around 1840 the two words fall
into a pattern of near equality until the 1910s and '20s, at
which point "summer" takes a huge surge in frequency, so
that by 2000, "summer" is more than 2½ times as frequent as "winter". (View
the graph, with summer red and winter blue.)
Russian nouns alter their form according
to the grammatical case in which they are being used.
"In summer" and "in winter" are expressed in the
instrumental case: летом and зимой
respectively, and these forms are much more frequent than
the nominative forms given above. With these forms,
summer's move to pass up winter is even more striking:
Summer is hardly ever mentioned before the 1910's, at which
time it surges to more than twice the frequency of
On the Ngram graph for Spanish, the lines
of verano and invierno ("summer" and
"winter" respectively) are extremely close together,
especially after 1840, but "winter" remains slightly more
frequent than "summer" up until the mid-1950s, when "summer"
pulls slightly ahead. By 2000, the instances of
"summer" outnumber those of "winter" by some 40%. (View
Books in Portuguese are not (yet)
accessed by the Ngram Viewer, but word-frequency data for
this language can be gathered from the Corpus do
Português (produced by Mark Davies at Brigham
Young University). Here, searches are focused century
by century. It is not possible to pinpoint the year or
decade when the graphs for verão ("summer") and inverno ("winter")
cross, but we can observe that the summer/winter ratio in
the nineteenth century
is 426/453 (94%), while in the twentieth century, the ratio is
1,305/1,073 (122%)—summer has moved from slightly less
frequent to somewhat more frequent.
For Chinese books, the Ngram Viewer
refers only to those using the simplified characters
adopted in the People's Republic of China in the 1950s, so
our comparison of "summer" and "winter" will not reach back
anywhere near the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, in
the years since 1950 the graphs show "winter" (冬天 xià tiān)
slightly more frequent up until about 1980, and then, as
with the other languages mentioned here, "summer" (夏天 dōng tiān) pulls slightly ahead in frequency
the graph; as with the other graphs linked above, the
blue line is for "winter" and the red line for "summer".)
for eight languages—Chinese, English, French, German,
Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish—suggest that
earlier books published
in each language
more frequently than summer, but that at various dates (or
rather periods) between the 1830s and the 1980s, the books
shifted to the reverse order: mentioning summer more than winter. In chronological order, the
crossover dates are as follows:
Russian (instrumental case)
1950s Spanish, Italian