As You Write, So You Are
August 21, 2013
As a child of the sixties, I was immersed in many of that decade's cultural movements, the slogan of one being, "you are what you eat." Most of the country didn't buy into that "hippie" paradigm, and it was simultaneously torpedoed by the food industry, which annually added new ingredients to every prepared food item. After all, who would want to buy a cookie without propylene glycol?
You're not only what you eat, you're also what are what you say. Fortunately, I was born in a region of Upstate New York where the people spoke essentially unaccented English. Some educated people from the New York metropolitan area have been forced to spend considerable time and money to rid themselves of its heavy regional accent. One of our secretaries had an endearing way of saying "coffee," but her accent would have prevented her from getting a job at a television anchor desk.
Nowadays, the written word is as important as the spoken word, because everyone is accessing social media, and some are writing blogs. As a consequence, you're also what you write. What people write in the aggregate can be analyzed by the Google Ngram Viewer, which allows an examination of the frequency of occurrence of words as a function of time for the many books and other publications that Google has indexed.[1-4] I've written about the Ngram Viewer in a few previous articles:
• Culturomics, January 13, 2011
The Ngram Viewer is being used in research to identify trends. These trends are necessarily long-term, since the data run over the course of many decades and end in 2000. In this case, we work with a converse principle, "as you write, so you are." A recent paper by UCLA psychologist, Patricia M. Greenfield, in the journal, Psychological Science, uses the Ngram Viewer to quantify the rise in individualism, at least among writers of the English language. Surprisingly, the trend towards "me" from "us" is not recent. It's been progressing in the same time frame as urbanization.[5-8]
The Ngram data of the time evolution of such words as give, get, obliged, choose, individual and obedience, show the trend away from community and towards the individual. From the article abstract,
• Physics Top Fifty, July 19, 2011
• Word Extinction, August 17, 2011
• Modeling Scientific Citation, December 16, 2011
• Plotting Emotions.April 10, 2013
"Adaptation to rural environments prioritizes social obligation and duty, giving to other people, social belonging, religion in everyday life, authority relations, and physical activity. Adaptation to urban environments requires more individualistic and materialistic values; such adaptation prioritizes choice, personal possessions, and child-centered socialization in order to foster the development of psychological mindedness and the unique self."
Says Greenfield, "The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, high-tech society." Greenfield's theory is that obligation and respect for authority are better for a person's interests in rural environments, whereas individualism and materialism work best in cities. Greenfield's study looked at about 1.5 million English-language books published between 1800 and 2000, about 1,160,000 of which were published in the United States.[6-7]
Greenfield found the anticipated decline and rise in the use of certain words, but with a few exceptions; for example, the use of the word, "get," declined between 1940 and the 1960s before rising again in the 1970s. This seems to define a decline in self-interest caused by World War II and the US civil rights movement.[6-7] Notes Greenfield,
“The Google Ngram Viewer is a revolutionary tool in that it counts word frequencies in a million books in less than a second. Not only that, it's a publicly accessible tool. Anyone can go to the Google Ngram website and replicate all of my results!”
As an illustration of this easy reproducibility, I present my own Ngram graphs for the words, give, get, obliged, choose, obedience and individual. My raw data is available as a CSV file, here.
Greenfield plans to examine these same trends using the Ngram Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese databases.[6-7] It will be interesting to see how global the trends are. One word that's had a recent rise in popularity is "feel," which has had an upwards trend only since 1965, as illustrated in my final graph.
- Jean-Baptiste Michel, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden, "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books," Science vol. 331, no. 6014 (January 14, 2011), pp. 176-182.
- Steve Bradt, "Oh, the humanity - Harvard, Google researchers use digitized books as a 'cultural genome'," Harvard University News Release, December 16, 2010.
- Patricia Cohen, "In 500 Billion Words, New Window on Culture," The New York Times, December 16, 2010.
- Erez Lieberman, Jean-Baptiste Michel, Joe Jackson, Tina Tang, and Martin Nowak, "Quantifying the Evolutionary Dynamics of Language," Nature, vol. 449, no. 7163 (October 11, 2007), pp. 713-716.
- Patricia M. Greenfield, "The Changing Psychology of Culture From 1800 Through 2000," Psychological Science (To Appear).
- Psychological Adaptation to Urbanization, Technology Reflected In Word Usage Over Last Two Centuries, Association for Psychological Science Press Release, August 7, 2013.
- Anna Mikulak, "Changes in language and word use reflect our shifting values, UCLA psychologist reports," UCLA Press Release, August 7, 2013.
- Tom Jacobs, "'Give' Gives Way as Word Usage Reflects Shift in Values," Pacific Standard, August 7, 2013.
Permanent Link to this article
Linked Keywords: 1960s; the sixties; counterculture of the 1960s; cultural movement; slogan; United States; hippie; paradigm; food industry; ingredient; convenience food; prepared food; cookie; propylene glycol; Upstate New York; unaccented; English language; education; educated; New York metropolitan area; secretary; coffee; television; news presenter; anchor desk; writing; written word; spoken language; spoken word; social media; blog; Google Ngram Viewer; frequency of occurrence; trend; data; converse; scientific literature; paper; University of California, Los Angeles; UCLA; psychologist; Patricia M. Greenfield; scientific journal; Psychological Science; individualism; English language; urbanization; time evolution; community; technology; low-tech; high-tech; theory; materialism; United States; 1940; 1970s; World War II; African-American Civil Rights Movement; US civil rights movement; reproducibility; comma-separated values; CVS file; Gnumeri; Spanish language; French language; Russian language; Chinese language; database; 1965.
Latest Books by Dev Gualtieri
Thanks to Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing for his favorable review of Secret Codes!
Blog Article Directory on a Single Page
- Levitation - March 27, 2017
- Soybean Graphene - March 23, 2017
- Income Inequality and Geometrical Frustration - March 20, 2017
- Wireless Power - March 16, 2017
- Trilobite Sex - March 13, 2017
- Freezing, Outside-In - March 9, 2017
- Ammonia Synthesis - March 6, 2017
- High Altitude Radiation - March 2, 2017
- C.N. Yang - February 27, 2017
- VOC Detection with Nanocrystals - February 23, 2017
- Molecular Fountains - February 20, 2017
- Jet Lag - February 16, 2017
- Highly Flexible Conductors - February 13, 2017
- Graphene Friction - February 9, 2017
- Dynamic Range - February 6, 2017
- Robert Boyle's To-Do List for Science - February 2, 2017
- Nanowire Ink - January 30, 2017
- Random Triangles - January 26, 2017
- Torricelli's law - January 23, 2017
- Magnetic Memory - January 19, 2017
- Graphene Putty - January 16, 2017
- Seahorse Genome - January 12, 2017
- Infinite c - January 9, 2017
- 150 Years of Transatlantic Telegraphy - January 5, 2017
- Cold Work on the Nanoscale - January 2, 2017
- Holidays 2016 - December 22, 2016
- Ballistics - December 19, 2016
- Salted Frogs - December 15, 2016
- Negative Thermal Expansion - December 12, 2016
- Verbal Cues and Stereotypes - December 8, 2016
- Capacitance Sensing - December 5, 2016
- Gallium Nitride Tribology - December 1, 2016
- Lunar Origin - November 27, 2016
- Pumpkin Propagation - November 24, 2016
- Math Anxiety - November 21, 2016
- Borophene - November 17, 2016
- Forced Innovation - November 14, 2016
- Combating Glare - November 10, 2016
- Solar Tilt and Planet Nine - November 7, 2016
- The Proton Size Problem - November 3, 2016
- Coffee Acoustics and Espresso Foam - October 31, 2016
- SnIP - An Inorganic Double Helix - October 27, 2016
- Seymour Papert (1928-2016) - October 24, 2016
- Mapping the Milky Way - October 20, 2016
- Electromagnetic Shielding - October 17, 2016
- The Lunacy of the Cows - October 13, 2016
- Random Coprimes and Pi - October 10, 2016
- James Cronin (1931-2016) - October 6, 2016
- The Ubiquitous Helix - October 3, 2016
- The Five-Second Rule - September 29, 2016
- Resistor Networks - September 26, 2016
- Brown Dwarfs - September 22, 2016
- Intrusion Rheology - September 19, 2016
- Falsifiability - September 15, 2016
- Fifth Force - September 12, 2016
- Renal Crystal Growth - September 8, 2016
- The Normality of Pi - September 5, 2016
- Metering Electrical Power - September 1, 2016
Deep Archive 2006-2008