Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Hidden Meaning of Pronouns


Scientific American has a sensationally titled interview with psychologist James Pennebaker on language use.

The entire interview is worth reading, but the following bit should interest anyone with a bent toward computational analysis of language:
Historians and biographers should jump on this new technology. The recent release of the Google Books Project should be required reading for everyone in the humanities. For the first time in the history of the world, there are methods by which to analyze tremendously large and complex written works by authors from all over the world going back centuries. We can begin to see how thinking, emotional expression, and social relations evolve as a function of world-wide events. The possibilities are breathtaking.

In my own work, we have analyzed the collected works of poets, playwrights, and novelists going back to the 1500s to see how their writing changed as they got older. We’ve compared the pronoun use of suicidal versus non-suicidal poets. Basically, poets who eventually commit suicide use I-words more than non-suicidal poets.

The analysis of language style can also serve as a psychological window into authors and their relationships. We have analyzed the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning and compared it with the history of their marriage. Same thing with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Using a method we call Language Style Matching, we can isolate changes in the couples’ relationships.
h/t Kim Salazar

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