It seems like a lifetime ago that I was a student of applied linguistics at the University of Wisconsin. The year was 1988, just on the cusp of the computer age. The university computer labs ran 24-7; without windows or anything resembling comfortable furniture, they looked like stuffy, oddly lit caves in which it was easy to lose track of time. They were like casinos without any fun lights, food, or music. It was a lucky thing to major in a subject that required me to spend zero time in such places.
But one day a syntax prof said, "Computers are the future of linguistics. In your lifetime there will be computers with whom you will converse, and computers that will try to understand the meaning of what you write. However, the nuances of language and social convention will make this very difficult to achieve." Twenty five years later, thanks to computational linguists, we have Siri answering questions on iPhones and Google analyzing email for possible ad targeting. This month I read a book that describes how computers can psyche me out by counting the number of times I use pronouns and articles.
The Secret Life of Pronouns is a book easily devoured in a couple of sittings, but I hesitate to recommend it to anybody but the geekiest. It's written by a psychologist so passionate about his computer analyses of a vast array of written English (Lady Gaga's tweets, Shakespeare's King Lear, Lincoln's Gettysburg address, John Kerry's campaign speeches, Enron emails...) that well...you might tire of it. But for word buffs, James Pennebaker's faith in his number crunching of "stealth words" in a wide variety of contexts is interesting.
|Pennebaker, image from Yale Scientific|
"Stealth words" are those little guys that we never pay much attention to: pronouns, articles, and the like. Merely counting the number of times that a writer uses the pronoun "I" can indicate gender, state of mind, and social status. Pennebaker's computer analysis of poetry is scary-accurate in its ability to predict the authors' suicides. Depression, self-deception, honesty, love, support, and the language of power are all covered by computer word-counts of "stealth words." Could this become a psychologist's tool? Maybe.
Always skeptical of technological fixes for human issues, I thought I might hate this book. The prose was approachable, if a bit odd...why suggest that the reader could skip the first chapter, and then say you might regret it, for example? But I did not hate this book. It was fun, and that's a big thing for a non-non-fiction reader to admit. I enjoyed his analysis of Obama's much-criticized use of "I," and I loved what the computer thought of Woody Allen's male characters' lines.
Final word: if you're a word buff, read this book. If you're mildly interested but don't want to buy the book, go to the website and take some short quizzes and do the exercises! You'll become part of the ongoing research in applied linguistics, and you may learn something about yourself.
And then come back and tell me how you did on the "I" test. :-)
For some more book ideas check out Armchair Squid: