Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Reading between the lines

Whenever we compare human and animal behaviour, one major difference that always comes up is our ability to use words to communicate with our fellow human beings. We can use words to order food in a restaurant and chat about everything and nothing over coffee with our friends, and the act of talking has become so normal to us that we don't even give much thought as to how extraordinary speech really is. And now researchers have discovered that our use of language gives away more than just the literal meaning of the words: there are hidden clues about ourselves in our words, in the frequency with which we use certain words, in the number of different words there are in our personal vocabulary and in the richness of our sentences.

In 'Vanishing Words', a recent episode of my ever favourite science-based radio programme Radiolab, Jad and Robert talk about those hidden messages. Drs Ian Lancashire, Kelvin Lim and Serguei Pakhomov are all interested in how characteristics of our personal vocabulary may be an indication of our likelihood of developing memory related diseases such as Alzheimer's. Moving from analysis of the crime novels of Agatha Christie to a comparison of how the linguistic content of teenage essays by a group of nuns relates sixty years on to their cognitive function, these researchers have found surprising associations between the richness of our language and our later susceptibility to cognitive decline.

And more messages can be found in this blog post on the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. Dr Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a study published in Cognition and Emotion that our existential feelings about positive and negative events are reflected in our language. Analysing the frequency of positive and negative words in our language, the researchers found a large prevalence of the former type of utterance, mirroring, they claim, the preponderance of positive events that occur.  Nonetheless, while negative words are comparably scarcer, they exist in greater variety, which the authors argue again is typical of how such events occur in our everyday environment.

Perhaps this latter is not so surprising.  Even at its most gossipy or mundane, language is partly a translation of our needs and desires, and partly a reflection of our environment.  Slips-of-the-tongue have endlessly been interpreted, not just as mistakes, but as windows onto our souls (see, for instance, the furore when Gordon Brown once accidentally said that he had "saved the world" rather than just the monetary crisis). Similarly, the past fifty years have seen fierce battles over Whorfian linguistic relativism, questioning how language affects thought, perception and behaviour.

All this does give the phrase 'reading between the lines' quite a different meaning!

1 comment:

  1. I am frequently driven to erase the word 'perhaps' which appears willy-noilly in my writing. Oops. This post makes me think it would be good to have some kind of tracking device on a keypad to see which words were most frequently undone ...