Category Archives: Society

You Are How You Say It

I’ve recently read ‘The Secret Life of Pronouns’, in which the social psychologist James Pennebaker  shows that while lexical words may tell us about a writer’s or speaker’s topic, function words, in particular personal pronouns, tell us about the writer or speaker and their relationship with the reader or listener. Computer analysis of thousands of pieces of text has enabled him and other researchers to identify the significance of the frequency of the words to which we don’t normally give a second thought.

It is already well established that pronouns occur more often in conversation than in writing. The Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus shows that, in the Conversation register, personal pronouns occur almost as frequently as nouns. By contrast, in the registers of Fiction, News and Academic Prose the proportion of nouns to pronouns is much higher, particularly in Academic Prose.

Pennebaker and his fellow researchers have taken this finding several stages further and shown, for example, that:

. . . the most commonly used word in spoken English, ‘I’, is used at far higher rates by followers than leaders, truth-tellers than liars. People who use high rates of articles – ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’ – do better in college than low users. And if you want to find your true love, compare the ways you use function words with that of your prospective partners.

Later in the book he asks:

Who, for example, would have ever predicted that the high school student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essays is likely to make lower grades in college? Or that the poet who overuses the word ‘I ‘in his poetry is at higher risk of suicide? Or that a certain leader’s use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he’d lead his country into war?

His research shows that such connections can be made.

There also seem to be some differences in the use of function words between the sexes:

Women use first-person singular, cognitive, and social words more; men use articles more.

Our use of function words also says something about our social status:

People higher in the social hierarchy use first-person singular pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my at much lower rates than people lower in status. In any interaction between two people, the person with the higher status uses fewer ‘I’-words. This is not a typo. High-status people, when talking to lower-status people, use the words ‘I’, ’me’, and, ‘my’ at low rates. Conversely, the lower-status people tend to use ‘I’-words at high rates.

Those higher in status use first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our) at much higher rates than those lower in status.

In written and spoken conversation, the person who uses more second-person pronouns like you and your is likely to be the person higher in status.

There’s much more, and I can only recommend that you get hold of a copy of the book if you’re at all interested. Some of his conclusions are counter-intuitive, but they are based on rigorous research. They can be applied in fields as varied as forensics, political forecasting, the analysis of literary texts and finding true love, but Pennebaker doesn’t offer any guarantees for the last.

The book has an associated website with a number of exercises that put some of his findings into practice. (Unfortunately, an interesting facility on the related site AnalyzeWords is not functioning at the moment.)


Filed under English Language, Language, Society, Spoken English

U and Non-U

It’s 60 years since Professor Ross published his study of the speech of the English upper class (24991_s113_150Ross), popularised by Nancy Mitford in ‘Noblesse Oblige’.Noblesse-oblige-book-cover-wikipedia His thesis was that by the time he was writing, most of the distinguishing characteristics of the aristocracy had disappeared, but that the one that remained was their use of language, and he catalogued many of its features. Those that were typical of upper class language he labelled U, and those that were not he labelled non-U.

Ross was of his time, and no doubt came to his subject with certain assumptions, but he didn’t claim that anyone else should copy the features he identified. The point is not that you can change your social status by adopting a certain kind of language (even if that may be possible) but that a certain kind of language indicates a certain social status.

Much of his paper is given over to the conventions of the written language and to pronunciation, but it is his findings on vocabulary that have attracted most comment over the years.  Here is a selection of them.

U                                                non-U
bike, bicycle cycle
riding horse-riding
table-napkin serviette
writing-paper note-paper
sick ill
what? pardon?
jam preserve
looking-glass mirror
drawing-room lounge
rich wealthy

Some of these might remain valid, others not. But what, I wonder, are today’s linguistic social markers? Words for meals are one. At least, they are a regional indicator. Middle and upper class southerners have lunch and dinner, where lower-middle and working class southerners and (all?) northerners (and Scots?) have dinner and tea. IMG

Perhaps social markers have shifted to other areas of human activity. James Bartholomew, the author of ‘Yew and Non-Yew’ (1996), suggested that we might now be stratified by gardening. Here are his horticultural equivalents of Ross’s linguistic ones.

1. Knot garden 1. Concrete frog in rowing boat
2. ‘Potager’ 2. Blue, naked lady, ready-made fountain
3. ‘Rooms’ divided by yew hedges 3. White plastic Grecian urns
4. Standard holly 4. Hanging baskets which descend for watering
5. Laburnum tunnel 5. Kidney-shaped pre-fabricated pond
6. Paths of old brick 6. Flower pots which attach themselves to drainpipes
7. ‘Window’ in a yew hedge 7. Mixed colour, concrete paving stones
8. ‘Turf seat’ 8. Rotary laundry line
9. Orchard with old and rare apple varieties 9. Built-in barbecue
10. Arboretum 10. Green plastic dog ‘loo’


Filed under English Language, Language, Society