The Language of Twitter

Technology is well-known (at least in linguist circles) for giving rise to new language. New innovations require new words, but those words are often quickly repurposed from their original parts of speech. For example, we can receive an e-mail (noun), but we can also straight up e-mail (verb) someone, and I think I’ve heard people refer to e-mail (adjective) messages (those are probably people who grew up with the idea of some other kind of messages for a while before they were introduced to the e-mail, though). Similarly, we have text (a group of words), a text (noun – a book, or, more recently, a text (adjective) message), and we can definitely text (verb) people. Instead of creating nouns, adjectives, and verbs for new technology concepts, we often create one word and use it for whatever parts of speech we need.

Twitter language

Social media platforms tend to also have their own niche linguistic habits. Twitter and Twitter users have introduced lots of new terms – for example the verb tweet as a thing humans can do while at a computer (with its accompanying noun — the tweet). Tweet is “productive,” in the linguistic sense that it can be combined with other morphemes (meaningful word parts) to make new words: there are retweets, subtweets, and tweetups.

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2010, seriously!?

Of course there’s also the expansion of the word hashtag (into something people now say verbally preceding pretty much anything they want). In fact, the primary definition of hashtag seems to be the Twitter sense now, with the actual symbol taking on the secondary definition.

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Plus, Twitter’s strict character limit encourages lots of esoteric abbreviations, bringing about lots of new elements of language. Sometimes, scrolling through my Twitter feed I’m reminded of the experience translating sentences from Latin — I’d figure out pieces one at a time, not necessarily in a logical order, and put them together, to hopefully reveal something meaningful.

Lately I’ve noticed a few especially cool linguistic inventions on Twitter that I think result in part from character restrictions, and also because even though most people’s Tweets are public for anyone on the Internet to read, conversations often include people with a lot of common ground. They may not even know each other IRL, but they follow similar people, communicate about similar topics online, and maybe share some background experiences.

First, an important mention: The people I follow on Twitter are not representative of the population of Twitter users. When I compare my Twitter followers to all Twitter users, there are some pretty striking differences. For example, a greater percentage of my followers are between ages 25 and 34 than the Twitter population at large.

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Similarly, my followers are much more interested in a handful of related topics than the whole Twitter population:

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These demographics should provide some context for the linguistic innovations I experience on Twitter.


First, the nature of hashtags on Twitter has kind of coerced these 3 words into one, as it often appears as #notallmen without caps to distinguish the component words. #Notallmen means what it sounds like. When someone says something negative about men, someone might reply with the reminder that not all men (#notallmen) are sexist (or whatever the original claim was — usually sexist). But I usually see #notallmen take on a more meta meaning, a way of pointing out that replying to some instance of sexism with “not all men” distracts from and avoids the problem (i.e., “Men who disguise their own hurt under #notallmen – into the bin with you”). Here, #notallmen is a noun.

But it can also be an adjective: “In my dream last night I was dating a #NotAllMen boy I went to high school with…”, “walk off your #notallmen instincts dude”, and “I wish guys put all of their angry ‘#NotAllMen!’ energy into just.. actually not being one of those men.” I know there must be verb uses of #notallmen out there, but I’ve yet to stumble upon one…

One other cool thing is that I see #notallmen in lots foreign language tweets — for example “Pero en este punto los hombres se vuelven víctimas y debemos dedicarnos al #notallmen para no herir a aquellos que “aman a las mujeres”.” To my eye, that looks like: “Spanish Spanish Spanish #notallmen Spanish.” (If you’re interested, Twitter translates it as: “But at this point the men become victims and we must dedicate ourselves to the #notallmen to not hurt those who “love women”.”)


#WellActually is #NotAllMen’s cousin. I admittedly don’t always understand how people are using it, but I do often see it to indicate that someone (most often a man) is correcting someone else (most often a woman). Sometimes it’s used to call out a man-splainer (as the man-splainer is likely to say “well, actually…” to a woman), but I’ve also seen it used to refer to correcting people in general: “I got to #wellActually one of the people interviewing me and it felt gooooooooodddddddddd” or “sorry to #wellactually.”

Like many of the other terms I’ve described, #WellActually can take on whatever part of speech its user needs. It’s often a verb (“Got a BALD MAN in my mentions trying to #WellActually me”), but can also be a noun (“Cue the glasses being pushed up and the ‘#WellActually'”) or an adjective (“Alright, #wellactually twitter. I see you never waste any time.” or “#WellActually twitter came really hard at the people trying to revel in the magnitude of this upset, huh?”). Well actually, I’m not completely convinced that #WellActually is describing Twitter in that second example. It might be an instance of using the hashtag for the actual words “well” and “actually,” which are… an interjection and an adverb? Someone can #WellActually me if that’s not right.

I love the content that I find on Twitter, but I can’t help paying attention to the way people package the content — which words they use and how they use them. The more I pay attention, the more I remember that people are clever, and language is one of the many ways they let that cleverness out.

A lingustically-inclined cognitive scientist’s take on Arrival

Note: This post doesn’t just contain spoilers. The whole thing is pretty much a spoiler. Read it now only if you have seen the movie, don’t plan to see the movie, or don’t mind knowing the end of the movie. Read it later if none of those previous conditions apply to you. Either way, read it at some point. 

This weekend I saw Arrival. The movie finished around 9:30pm, which is about bedtime for me, but I was wired. A few times during the movie, I squeezed my husband’s hand. He passed over his sweatshirt for me to rest on my lap, assuming the squeezes were my way of telling him I was cold (they often are). I clarified, I’m just excited.

Why was I so excited? Because Arrival nailed some of the intellectual issues that make me tick.

Wikipedia has a solid overview of the plot, so mine will be brief. In the movie, aliens land in 12 different locations across the Earth. One of those locations is in the U.S., and Louise, a linguistics professor, is called to help make sense of their language so humans can communicate with the aliens (referred to as heptapods) and ask them why they’re here.

Lessons Learned

Early on, the colonel asks Louise why she has such a lengthy list of terms she needs to learn to communicate with the heptapods. The military only wants the answer to the question: “What is your purpose here?” Louise briefly points out the layers of complexities underlying such a seemingly simple question. First, it’s a question, so you have to make sure the heptapods know what a question is; that it’s a request for information. Then there’s the pronoun your, which is ambiguous in English in a way it’s not in other human languages. Your can refer to Joe alien or it can refer to the aliens collectively, an important specification that needs to be clear to effectively ask the heptapods why they’re here. Understanding the word purpose assumes an agreed-upon sense of intentionality. These are just a few of the reasons that Louise needs to be able to communicate human and Louise and many other seemingly-unrelated words before diving into the meaty why are you here? question. Lesson #1: Communication is not simple.


Eventually, Louise gets to the point where she can ask the heptapods why they’re on Earth. They write their response, which Louise translates as Offer weapon. Other teams of linguists at the other 11 locations with heptapod shells have also gotten to a similar point in their communication with the heptapods and translate the responses similarly: Use weapon. Not surprisingly, people freak out. China has declared that they’ll open fire on the shell if they don’t leave within 24 hours. Pakistan and Sudan follow suit. Nations start disconnecting from each other. Everyone is afraid that the heptapods are going to attack, and the U.S. military starts evacuating from the site.

Louise is not so ready to accept this message as a warning of attack. Maybe the weapon the heptapods were talking about what English speakers refer to as a tool (which is a really ambiguous term, accounting for so many different objects. Of course a screwdriver is a tool, a knife is a tool, a pen is a tool. But so are cars and iPhones and… language). Lesson #2: Translating is messy (this version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air translated many times over hillariously reminds us of this fact).

Despite the military’s disapproval, Louise takes it upon herself to clarify the heptapods’ message. Why are they here? They are here to help humanity because in 3,000 years they will need humans’ help. Louise asks how they can possibly know that they’ll need our help in 3,000 years. They know because they have an ability to perceive time in a way we don’t: they can see the future. And, they point out to Louise, so can she. It is at this point that we realize that the visions Louise has been having throughout the movie, which we assumed to have been flashbacks to her daughter’s life and death from a rare form of cancer, are actually flash-forwards. As Louise has learned the heptapods’ language, she has acquired the ability to perceive time as they do.


The heptapods’ written language is not linear, as every known human language is. It’s written simultaneously from left to right and right to left. It’s cyclical. They have come to help humanity by offering up an incredibly valuable tool — their language. Once someone knows their language, they will be able to perceive time as the heptapods do, in a new way. And that is a gift. Lesson #3: Language is a gift. Lesson #3a: It can shape the way you see the world.

As I left the movie, I looked around at the other people in the theater and tried to imagine the conversations they’d have on the way home. I imagined someone commenting, Imagine if the language you spoke and the way you wrote actually affected the way you perceive time? That would be wild.

You know what would be even more wild? If people spent all day every day thinking about and working on that very topic. If they earned government and university funding, conducted academic research experiments, talked and wrote incessantly about it, and at the end of it, they were granted a PhD. So wild. That’s my life, so I guess I’m wild — there’s a first time for everything.

Language Shapes Thought about Time

As far as we know, there are no human speakers of any language who can see the future as a result of their language’s way of talking about time. But there are other cool connections between the way different groups of people talk about time and the way we think about it. Across many languages, we tend to use features of space to talk about time, and cognitive science research shows that we tend to invoke space when we think about time as well.

In English, for example, we often talk about looking forward to the future and putting the past behind us. Beyond just a way of talking, we’re faster to think about the future when doing so involves some kind of forward component (like moving our arms or bodies forward) and faster to think about the past when it involves backward movement. Speakers of the Aymara language actually reverse this convention: since they know what happened in the past, it’s in front of them, in visible space, while the future, unknown, is behind. Their spontaneous gestures reveal that they also think about the past as ahead and future as behind. And Mandarin Chinese speakers can talk about time using vertical space. The same words that mean above and below can be combined with temporal words like month to produce the phrases last month and next month. Compared to English speakers, who don’t talk about time using vertical metaphors, Mandarin speakers have more robust vertical mental timelines.

Linguistic metaphors matter for the way speakers of a language think about time, but so does their writing direction. As left-to-right readers and writers, English speakers think of time as left-to-right. Right-to-left readers and writers, like speakers of Hebrew and Arabic, think of time as flowing from right-to-left. And Mandarin speakers with more experience with top-to-bottom text think of time even more vertically than those who speak the same language but don’t read vertically (whether Mandarin is written vertically varies from one location to another). When you read and write, you are continually experiencing the flow of time in one direction. Your eyes and hand move in a consistent direction as time unfolds, which seems to instill a consistent mental timeline. (See the list of resources at the bottom of this post for more info on all of these studies and more)

Back to Arrival

The movie was a 5/5 in my book because it was captivating. It was a 5/5 because a linguist saved the day, and because the military recognized that they needed someone with a PhD in linguistics for this crucial job. And, to boot, the linguist was a female, which is not at all far-fetched in the real world, but is not to be taken for granted in a Hollywood portrayal of an academic. As a bonus, Arrival spread the concept of my research much farther than my dissertation will, and it proved — even to me — that there are so many reasons for us to continue methodically investigating the world’s languages and their impact on cognition. Because you just never know when the heptapods will arrive.


You can also find this post published on

More Information

Bergen, B., & Chan Lau, T. (2012). Writing direction affects how people map space onto time. Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, 3(109).

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2010). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118(1), 123–129.

Casasanto, D. (2008). Who’s afraid of the big bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic differences in temporal language and thought. Language Learning, 58(s1), 63–79.

Casasanto, D., & Jasmin, K. (2012). The hands of time: Temporal gestures in English speakers. Retrieved from

Fuhrman, O., & Boroditsky, L. (2010). Cross-Cultural Differences in Mental Representations of Time: Evidence From an Implicit Nonlinguistic Task. Cognitive Science, 34(8), 1430–1451.

Fuhrman, O., McCormick, K., Chen, E., Jiang, H., Shu, D., Mao, S., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D. Cognitive Science, 35(7), 1305–1328.

Miles, L. K., Tan, L., Noble, G. D., Lumsden, J., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). Can a mind have two time lines? Exploring space–time mapping in Mandarin and English speakers. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 598–604.

Núñez, R. E., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the future behind them: Convergent evidence from Aymara language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 401–450.

Ouellet, M., Santiago, J., Israeli, Z., & Gabay, S. (2010). Is the future the right time? Experimental Psychology, 57(4), 307-314.


For the love of language: Guest post

I met Emi Karydes as she was beginning her last year as an undergrad at UCSD. I knew she wanted to be involved in linguistic research, and although my work is really more about cognition, I convinced her that language was my first love and is at the center of my cognitive science research, and Emi became a research assistant. She taught me cool things about American Sign Language, made me laugh, and was tremendously helpful with whatever project I threw at her. A couple months after graduation, Emi reflects on her relationship with language – past, present, and future:

I started my freshman year at UCSD with an interest in everything, but no idea what I wanted to focus on. I had narrowed down my options to “something in the Arts/Humanities.” Then I took LING7, the Linguistics of American Sign Language, and I fell in love. (I am still a bit upset that it took me so long to learn about linguistics, but that is an issue for another day.) I don’t know how I feel about the idea of predestination or fate, but it certainly feels like I was always meant to be a linguist. The study of language touches on so many different aspects of life, from communication, to culture, to technology, to art, just to name a few, that it was the perfect major for someone who wanted to study everything.

Language is something that most people are fortunate enough to take for granted, so when you take a step back and analyze how and why language works it can be mind-boggling. I remember sitting in Phonology freaking out about the fact that as we are talking about the different sounds on the IPA chart, we’re producing them. It is impossible to study linguistics without using language, which I will admit has led me to start speaking  and just not stop because I get distracted by how my vocal tract produces the different phonemes. Lots of fun for the people stuck listening to me listening to myself, I’m sure. But my point is that there are so many amazing things happening in your brain and your body allowing you to communicate almost effortlessly, and we aren’t even consciously aware of it most of the time. Language is as close to magic as I’ve been able to find concrete proof for, and I love it.

“So, what exactly are you planning to DO with a linguistics major?” Honestly, whatever you want. Don’t let this question scare you away from a Linguistics major. Since language is so engrained in our everyday lives, linguistics can be applied to almost anything. Scratching the surface, there is speech pathology, or computational linguistics, or language construction, or gathering data on a language that is nearing extinction, or research into any of a number of unanswered questions. I graduated this year with a degree in General Linguistics, and am taking a year off to relocate from San Diego to Portland, but I am really looking forward to applying to grad schools and furthering my study of linguistics. I genuinely feel that what I’ve learned these last four years has helped me grow as a person, expanding my personal perspective and giving me a new method by which to think about the world as a community. So if you are going into this year with no idea what to study, try linguistics. It might just change your life.

P.S. Emi has some other talents you might want to check out.

Linguist meets CogSci: Guest Post

I work with some really stellar undergraduates. They’re often the people behind the scenes collecting the data that drives my research. They teach me interesting nuggets from their classes, and they ask questions I can’t always answer.

Here are some thoughts from Austin German, a rising junior double majoring in Cognitive Science and Linguistics. Austin is a linguaphile, and here he tells a story about how cognitive science – thinking about this vast, intangible thing that is the mind – has changed the way he thinks about and appreciates language:

I’ve known I wanted to study linguistics since the 10th grade, so when I got to UCSD in 2014 I blew through my general ed requirements and dived directly into upper division linguistics courses. Even though I loved every one of them, I was disappointed- my major was only twelve classes. Twelve. By the end of my second year I would essentially be finished with my major. Desiring more, I sought research assistant positions.

I landed not in linguistics, but in cognitive science. Little did I know how significant this would be for my views on language and linguistics. Obviously valuable was the first-hand experience I gained in scientific research, but I could have gotten that in any lab. What really impacted me was the exposure to theories and research programs that directly conflicted with my training in linguistics. The lab I ended up in was run by a leading contributor to the theory of linguistic relativity– the idea that one’s language influences cognition. This made me uneasy. In traditional linguistics, the central assumption is the equality of all human languages in terms of expressive power and structural complexity. But actually reading the literature made it clear that no one was asserting that speakers of certain language were somehow limited in what thoughts they could express or even conceive of. The idea was that different languages obligatorily encode different kinds of information (tense, aspect, evidentiality, or agentivity, to name a few common examples). The increased attention speakers must habitually pay to such information leads to a different cognitive ‘partitioning’ of the world.

Even though my previous understanding of linguistic relativity was shattered, it still made me uncomfortable. Not because I didn’t like the theory, but because I realized how myopic my own field of linguistics could be. So much linguistic work had focused on description or abstract analyses of language structure (and these are a few of my favorite things!) without any wider perspective. How did language come to be so diverse? What are the implications of linguistic diversity?

I couldn’t find the answers in traditional linguistics. Chomsky tells us that it’s all the same below the surface. Really? Why are linguists so afraid to tackle the wider implications of language structure for cognition? Exposure to serious research in linguistic relativity pulled me out of the view that language was an island, uncontacted by other regions of the mind. Logically, then, linguists were not the only people with relevant things to say about language. To really understand language, I knew I couldn’t just study linguistics. So I declared a minor in cognitive science. After a few weeks I bit the bullet and went full double major.

Exposure to serious research in linguistic relativity pulled me out of the view that language was an island, uncontacted by other regions of the mind.

I’m still really uncomfortable as a cognitive science major. In linguistics, I’m a top student. I know something about pretty much any topic in linguistics, and quite a bit about a few very specific ones. But in cognitive science? I’d be hard pressed to completely and accurately explain pretty much anything in this field. And this is a good thing. Linguistics has always been defined to me as the scientific study of language- yet I was taught little explicit science in my linguistics classes (with a few exceptions). After just one quarter of lower division cognitive science classes, I’m armed with more tools- and more questions- than after a whole major in linguistics. I’m still a linguist at heart, but I’m excited to explore a new field for a while. Hopefully the next two years are just as enlightening.

-Austin German (agerman at ucsd dot edu)


Metaphors We Live By

I recently read Metaphors we Live by, a seminal work in the field of metaphor research. Written by George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosopher, the book incorporates both fields in an argument for metaphor’s importance in our lives. The authors make the case that metaphor allows us to apply our physical and social experiences to make sense of many other subjects. By this definition, metaphors structure our understandings of so many concepts in our lives (from arguments to time perception), and consequently shape our perceptions of and actions regarding those concepts.
While I do subscribe to their thesis, the most what struck me most when reading this work that I have so often read about was the observation that they were talking about embodiment without referring to it as such (probably because the term wasn’t yet in use). In a way, it seems to me, Lakoff and Johnson are hipsters, advocating for embodied cognition before it became trendy.
One example of this is their recurrent discussion of the general metaphor “happy is up,” (as are “good” and “healthy” – and their opposites are down). This is evident in metaphors like:
  • I’m down in the dumps
  • That speech was uplifting
  • Cheer up
  • My spirits rose
Down in the dumps, literally and metaphorically. Image:
Down in the dumps, literally and metaphorically.
Crucially, they argue, metaphors are systematic, not arbitrary. So if happy is up, we could never introduce a new metaphor into our language in which something like “he dropped down a level” meant that he got better in any way. Embodiment comes in when we realize that when we’re healthy and happy, we physically stand taller. We hold our heads higher and we look UP. Because in our personal experiences, “good” and “up” really do correlate, our metaphors reflect that. Then the metaphor becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, as our subsequent actions may also be shaped by the metaphors which are first based in experience.
I think that if Lakoff and Johnson, or any of us, want to make the argument that our linguistic practice of equating “good” and “up” is rooted in our physiology, we should look at other languages. Do speakers of other languages have the same systematic metaphors? The presence of metaphors in which “down” and “good” are equated in any language would make me rethink this argument. They write that “not all cultures give the priorities we do to up-down orientation. There are cultures where balance or centrality plays a much more important role than it does in our culture” (p.24). I was eager to read elaboration on this, and maybe some examples… but that was all they wrote.Thus, for now, I’m on board with the idea that our bodies have systematically shaped our metaphors.
Some other interesting tidbits:
  • In addition to “up is good,” we also systematically express the unknown as up (i.e., that’s up in the air; I’d like to raise some questions; let’s bring it up for discussion). When we ask questions, presumably regarding something that’s  unknown to us, our intonation rises – not a coincidence, the authors claim.
  • The authors bring up the idea that in language (not just English), more form equals more content. So when we say “he is very very very tall,” we get the impression of a much taller man than one described as, “he is very tall.” Many languages use reduplication, the repetition of one or two syllables, to evoke more content as well. In some languages, reduplication applied to a singular noun makes it plural, or applied to a verb makes it continuous. These practices demonstrate another metaphor we live by – that a linguistic expression is a container and its meaning is the contents of that container. By adding more language to the container (expression), we add more content.
Some parts of the book were a little tough to get through (for me, that would be the philosophical parts), but overall my experience of reading the book was one dotted with a number of hm-I-never-thought-of-that moments. As a tribute to the importance of metaphor, I’ll close with the final paragraph of the afterword, an apt summary of the whole work:
 But metaphors are not merely things to be seen beyond. In fact, one can see beyond them only by using other metaphors. It is as though the ability to comprehend experience through metaphor were a sense, like seeing or touching or hearing, with metaphors providing the only ways to perceive and experience much of the world. Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.

Disparaged dialects have rules too

The most compelling reason, I think, that we shouldn’t make fun of dialects traditionally considered dumbed down versions of English is that they, too, are rule-governed, and we might make fun of them incorrectly. And that sort of defeats the purpose of mocking them.

This article talks about three specific examples from dialects that are often made fun of. One is the Appalachian a-prefixing (he was a-huntin’). Another is the Southern use of the word “liketa” (She liketa killed me!), which is similar to the word “almost.” And the last is the African American use of the stressed “bin” (she bin married), which has a different meaning and usage from “been,” with which it’s often confused.


A fun reminder to get off our linguistic high horse (something that I’m often guilty of).

The Secret Life of Pronouns

I just finished The Secret Life of Pronouns: What our words say about us, as I mentioned a few days ago. I didn’t have very high expectations when I picked the book up, but this is the best depiction I have of my interest level throughout the book:

interest in pronouns

The premise of the book is very cool. It’s a true mix of computational linguistics and personality psychology, in which the focus is on function words instead of seemingly more interesting content words. The author, James Pennebaker, believes that words are “a window into the inner workings of people, a fascinating and revealing way to think about language and its links to the world around us all” (17).

Pennebaker analyzes different types of texts, and discovers trends in function word use, then applies the trends to new texts. For example, he analyzed men’s versus women’s writing and found a number of differences in the function word use by the two groups. People’s tendencies to use words like I vs. we, Pennebaker claims, can shed light not only on their gender, but also their age, mental state, and geographic location (as well as many other things).

I really liked the section where he talks about Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Patients with lesions on Broca’s area often have trouble stringing together words to make sentences, while those with Wernicke’s impairments often string together many words with little meaning. When Broca’s area is damaged, use of function words is impaired; when Wernicke’s area is damaged, use of content words tends to suffer. Although he admits that this is a gross oversimplification, the suggestion that the distinction between content and style words occurs at a pretty basic level in the brain is compelling.

Image: wikipedia
Image: wikipedia

The chapter on using function words to detect emotion was one of the ones that I felt like his argument was stretched a little thinly. One section, called “Arrogance, loss, and depression: The case of Mayor Giuliani and King Lear” talked about a project in which Mayor Giuliani’s speeches were analyzed. In 2000, Giuliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer, withdrew from the senate race, separated from his wife on TV before telling her, and subsequently acknowledged a “special friendship” with his future wife, Judith Nathan all within two weeks. Compared to his speeches made early in his career, after these events he had a dramatic increase in his use of I-words, a drop in big words, and an increase in his use of both positive and negative emotion words.

Pennebaker noticed that this was “eerily familiar” to Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which the king starts as an arrogant ruler, but is transformed after experiencing many traumas. Sure enough, analyzing the differences between a monologue King Lear made in Act 1, Scene 1 and one that he made in Act 5, Scene 3, Pennebaker uncovered the same function word trends that were present over the course of Giuliani’s speeches. It’s interesting, for sure, but seems to me that it could certainly be a convenient example. Plus, King Lear is a fictional character!

I think Pennebaker sums up his work pretty clearly in the last chapter:

From author identification that can help in catching criminals or in identifying historical authors, to understanding the thinking of presidents or tyrants, to predicting how people might behave in the future, function words are clues about the human psyche. Most promising, however, is that by looking at our own function words, we can begin to understand ourselves better.

I guess I would classify the book as pop linguistics- a very cool and enticing premise, even if it may be taken a little far. Regardless, it’s definitely caused me to take a second look at things I’ve said and written, wondering what aspects of myself might be revealed by words that seem, on the surface, so trivial.

Function Word Maps

A while back I posted some cool maps demonstrating lexical differences across the US. Then, I came across some similar maps in Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (review soon). His claim is that by looking at the function words in a text (words like and, I, because) we can learn a lot about the author.

In one study, he analyzed about 37,500 essays written in response to a National Public Radio program called This I Believe. The essays were written by people all over the country, and Pennebaker first found trends in the content of the essays- stories about sports were most common in essays from the Midwest, racial issues from the South, and science from the Northeast. More interestingly, he argues, were the variations in function word use. One finding was that people in the middle of the country used the highest rate of I-words, present-tense verbs, and short words, indicators, he claims, of psychological immediacy, characterized by being “in the here and now.” This is shown by the top map (darker colors indicate higher levels of immediacy).

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 9.50.54 AM

The second finding was that people in the middle of the country tended to use words like conjunctions, negations, and prepositions, at higher rates than people in the rest of the country, which reflects analytic thinking and making distinctions between ideas. Again, darker colors show higher usage of the function words that reflect making distinctions.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 9.50.39 AM

Are these findings meaningful? I’m hesitant in taking this as a suggestion that people in the middle of the country tend to live more in the moment and exercise more analytic thinking in the form of making distinctions, but it’s interesting nonetheless.