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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

In the beginning was a word (and it went forth and multiplied)

This morning's NY Times Science Section has an interesting article on the use of language. You can find it here.

James W. Pennebaker is professor of psychology at the University of Texas who has developed a computer program to count the words we use in our speech. Pennebaker’s interest in word counting began more than 20 years ago, when he did several studies suggesting that people who talked about traumatic experiences tended to be physically healthier than those who kept such experiences secret. He wondered how much could be learned by looking at every single word people used — even the tiny ones, the I’s and you’s, a’s and the’s.

His work has led him down a winding path that has taken him from Beatles lyrics (John Lennon’s songs have more “negative emotion” words than Paul McCartney’s) all the way to terrorist communications. By counting the different kinds of words a person says, he is breaking new linguistic ground and leading a resurgent interest in text analysis.

Indeed, there is even a web page which has begun to look at the language used by the presidential and vice presidential candidates.

Check out these articles here comparing the speeches given by Obama and McCain. You'll be interested to know what his studies have revealed about Palin's formal and informal speeches here.

Pennebaker wrote a fascinating comparison of the speeches of the four candidates during the Democratic and Republican Conventions. Here's his concluding paragraph:

"There IS a huge age difference among the candidates in terms of the ways they use words. But the differences are quite different from what we would expect. The youngsters, Obama and Palin, used words like old people. They overused 1st person plural, big words, low emotion word rates, high levels of articles. McCain and Biden, however, talk like teenagers. Lots of 1st person singular, high rates of emotions, high use of verbs, especially auxiliary verbs.

This is perhaps what tightly scripted conventions are all about. The men talk like women and the women talk like men. The young sound old and the old sound young.

It’s inspirational."

In one of the articles, an interesting disclaimer is made at the very end: "Finally, no one should take any text analysis expert’s opinions too seriously. The art of computer-based language analysis is in its infancy. We are better than tea-leaf readers but probably not much."

It's fascinating anyway. Not as entertaining as watching dolphins play with water bubbles, but better than reading tea-leaves.

I would love to submit for analysis some of the emails posted on House of Bishops Listserv, or some of the statements issued by the leaders of both sides of the "great divide" in The Anglican Communion. Might provide some interesting insights.

Then again, it probably wouldn't tell us what we don't already know.

1 comment:

altar ego said...

Interesting stuff, words. It would be interesting, as well, to apply this analysis to the gospels and epistles, and it might be fun to compare translations and see what turns up. Food for thought, no matter what. Glad you shared this.

Love the graphic you used.