Monthly Archives: September 2011

Life Updates

So I haven’t posted anything in a while, so I thought I’d check in quick. I left the charger for my laptop at my parents’ house in Minnesota & I now live in Wisconsin, so I’ve been without laptop for a few days. This has significantly reduced my productivity. We should be back in business by Wednesday, though, when I receive the charger in the mail. I have several additional projects that are occupying my time as well. First, I’m working on my applications for grad school so that I can someday fulfill my dream of becoming a professional linguist & not just some amateur blogger. I’m also TAing for a psychology of language class at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire which entails figuring the reading schedule (including finding primary articles for students), writing reading guides (quizzes, really) for each article, & a bit of grading here & there. I have a lot of respect for professors who can juggle all of this in several classes & manage a research lab & whatever else they take on! But it does make me excited to teach someday myself. Next I’m working on a paper on linguistic receptivity with my former (& unofficially current, if you think about it) research advisor, Erica. That’s still in its beginning stages, but we’re getting into full swing here, soon. Finally, I started my full-time job this morning at 6am which is going to seriously screw with my easily-triggered insomnia. Fortunately it’s just a data entry job so I can sort of zone out listening to music or books on tape. In other news, I just had my final post-op appointment with my surgeon last week & everything checks out. I don’t need to go in again for 5 years! (For those who didn’t know, I just had spine surgery earlier this summer.)

Anyway, that’s all I have today. I just wanted to let my readers know that I’m still alive & plan on writing — I’ve just been sans computer for a while & have lots of other things busying me. I suppose this entry also adds a bit of humanity behind the entries I write, which might be boring. I don’t know. But do not worry! I do have some ideas for upcoming blogs so you’ll see those soon! 🙂

MLR

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Function Words — How do they Make You Feel?

If you recall, I summarized an article about function word use & personality in a recent blog entry. Since then I’ve thought of a few more things to add to this topic. The first is a paper taking a look at the affective use of demonstrative this & second is a paper which spends some time talking about the impact of brain damage on the acquisition & production of function words in children. I suppose you may first want to take a look at Pronouns & Personality again, but I’ll rehash the gist for you below.

  • In order to participate in conversations over half full of function words (including pronouns) which provide little content, speakers need to be acutely aware of their environment & social milieu.
  • This means that the ability to use function words is a marker for basic social skills.
  • There are individual differences in usage of function words (including pronouns).
  • These differences are associated with personality traits & psychological states.
First, almost immediately after publishing this entry, I thought of the paper I’d read a while back by Potts & Schwarz (2009) called Affective This. This paper was interesting purely by being a corpus study in experimental pragmatics, but their findings also provide compelling evidence for the association between function words & expression of shared mental states. You might have guessed this from the title of the journal article — affective suggesting emotion & this being the function word of interest.
When considering emotionally charged language, function words like this & that aren’t among the first to come to mind. Especially considering that we have words designed explicitly to convey emotion (e.g. bastard, amazing, wow, etc.). However, even before considering the Potts & Schwarz paper, we have an idea that there’s more to these little words than meets the eye. Variation across speakers & contexts does seem to have some link to personality traits & psychological states.
So Potts & Schwarz chose to focus their attention on a comparison between proximal & distal demonstratives, this & that respectively. They sought to use corpus evidence to confirm the thought that this suggests a close, shared sentiment (solidarity) whereas that conveys a contrasting emotion. The idea is that these two senses arise from the “core” spatio-temporal meaning of these demonstratives. So while this & that exist primarily to orient a referent in space & time, their meanings have been extended to express affective closeness or distance. Finally, heading a noun (commonly a proper noun) with a demonstrative seems to suggest an agreement between speakers on the evaluative claims in an utterance.
The authors summarize the following characteristics of demonstrative-heading:
a. The speaker presumes that the hearer can identify the referent of A.
b. The predication of the referent A is evaluative.
c. The evaluative predication is uncontroversial.
d. The speaker intends to evoke solidarity with the hearer.
To test these effects of demonstrative-heading, the authors turn to quantitative corpus evidence, which is a relatively new technique in experimental pragmatics as I understand it. They looked at use of affective this in hotel & product reviews & their associated “star ratings” on Tripadvisor & Amazon to determine whether or not its use was a sign of solidarity. Indeed they found a u-shaped distributional frequency of this across star ratings suggesting an emotional use. That is, this is used with less frequency in “lukewarm” 3-star reviews & in greater frequency is more “heated” 1- & 5-star reviews. They found the same u-shaped distribution with exclamatory words like wow, absolutely, & the exclamation mark.
On the other hand, they found an “anti-exclamatory” effect for demonstrative that & suggest it to have an “anti-solidarity” effect. Take a look at their sentences demonstrating this:
(15)
a. How’s that throat?
b. How’s that porkulus working out?
c. How’s that “hope” and “change” working out for you?
d. How’s that $787 billion stimulus working out?
Now this paper only examined the use of this & that (& still mostly just this), yet it it’s clear that these content-free function words can do a lot to express emotional closeness. In the case of this, function words do seem to have the ability to orient a speaker not only physically, but also in an emotional sense. Their research offers more evidence for the idea that use of function words necessitate an awareness of one’s social & environmental setting. To be able to express solidarity with a discourse partner requires an understanding of where they are at in their mind — are they likely to find your evaluative claims uncontroversial, are they familiar with your referent, etc.?
Second, & the thing that made me decide that it would be worthwhile to publish a follow-up entry, is a paper I just finished reading by Bates & Roe (2001) which summarizes literature on language development in children with unilateral brain injuries. Some of the past research they look at concludes some pretty intriguing things about the way acquisition & use of function words figures into children’s language development. Now this isn’t the impetus behind the paper, but it does spend a good amount of time addressing the issue.
In one study that they review (Bates et al., 1997), they find that children with damage to their right-hemisphere produce a disproportionately high number of function words relative to their overall vocabulary as compared with normal children. This pattern of function word use is associated with slower grammar development in later stages of language acquisition. These children tend to use frozen expressions, an example of which given by the authors is “I wan dat.”  This style of linguistic expression is called “holistic style.”
There are other children who use relatively fewer function words than is normal & instead use telegraphic utterances like “Mommy sock.” This style of linguistic expression is called “analytic style.
The authors note that the terms “holistic” & “analytic” are often attributed to the right- & left-hemispheres respectively & for this reason, one might expect that children exhibiting an overproduction of function words (“holistic style”) would be more likely to have left-hemisphere damage. We would assume that children would be relying on their intact, “holistic” right-hemisphere to acquire & produce language, but evidence runs to the contrary. The authors of the 1997 study conclude that children with damage to their right-hemisphere rely on the greater abilities of the left-hemisphere to analyze acoustic input & memory & actually end up storing & using entire frozen sound segments. This is compared to an anglophone’s use of the the word gesundheit which is understood holistically, but not structurally or semantically in the way a German would. Consequently, children with right-hemisphere damage end up using far more function words than normal children.
I’m sure there’s a lot more research on the acquisition & production of function words in children, but I did find it interesting to learn that brain damage can lead to individual differences in function word use that contradict expectations based on what we know about right- & left-hemisphere specialization in adults. Once again it goes to show that function words are more important to us than we may think. Fascinating!
Megan L. Risdal

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Only Who Can Prevent Forest Fires?

I watched this episode of The Simpsons yesterday. Linguists should enjoy this quote. 🙂

Only who can prevent forest fires? You pressed ‘you,’ referring to me. That is incorrect. The correct answer is ‘you.’

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Putting I’ma on the Map.. Again

The other day I came across another great tool for looking at the geographic distribution of word usage at Lexicalist.com. Here’s what they have to say about how it works:

Lexicalist works by analyzing rich sources of information online, including blog posts, news sources, and social networking sites like Twitter. Each bit of information is subjected to rigorous natural language processing, which includes a likelihood distribution of being authored over all geographic, age and gender demographics.

All of the statistical results displayed here are then normalized against the volume of information coming from each demographic to see what words are most commonly associated with certain populations. The result is a descriptive snapshot of language as it’s used today.

Below you’ll find demographic maps of imai’maimmagonna, & going. Though I don’t have it included here, you can also look at a breakdown of who’s using each word by age & gender. I like this because it looks at more than just data from Twitter.

Demographics of “ima” on Sep 09, 2011 (from Lexicalist.com).

Demographics of “imma” on Sep 09, 2011 (from Lexicalist.com).

Demographics of “i’ma” on Sep 09, 2011 (from Lexicalist.com).

Demographics of “gonna” on Sep 09, 2011 (from Lexicalist.com).

Demographics of “going” on Sep 09, 2011 (from Lexicalist.com).

So compared to the SeeTweet maps from an earlier blog post, here it is much clearer that I’ma & its variants are restricted to the South. The maps of gonna & going show pretty much equal distribution across the United States. Neat! I think I’ll be using this tool more in the future.

Megan L. Risdal

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Pronouns & Personality

Today I’ve got a bit of psychology of language for you, dear readers. You may have come across in the news articles about U.S. presidents’ use of pronouns & what it says about their personality. Now it seems to me that a lot of these journalistic pieces are just a bunch of fluff, but I did come across something a bit more substantive in a New Scientist article called The Secret Life of Pronouns. The article is based on research in Dr. Pennebaker’s book of the same name. He claims that little words like pronouns & articles, collectively called function words, can say a lot about the way we “think, feel, & connect with others.”

[… we] found that the use of pronouns – I, me, we, she, they – mattered enormously. The more people changed from using first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) to using other pronouns (we, you, she, they) from one piece of writing to the next, the better their health became. Their word use reflected their psychological state.

I was very intrigued by this claim. How is it possible that our use of such seemingly insignificant words could offer insight into something so complex as our psychological state?

Individual differences in language style, particularly pronoun use. Function words represent, on average, a surprising 55% of discourse, with content words accounting for the remaining 45%. Additionally, the top twenty most commonly used words in English are function words. How are we able to communicate a content-rich, meaningful message to our listeners using such a great number of words that, while indeed serving a grammatical purpose, do not always express much actual meaning?

The answer is social context.

Ah hah, I thought. I shouldn’t have been so surprised by this after having completed a seminar in experimental pragmatics. Things like the relationship between speakers, environment, & many other things all contribute to how language is used & understood. It is also in observation of Grice’s conversational maxims that our manner linguistic expression is influenced. So this means at least three things. First, it means that we don’t need to be as wordy in order to get our message across as compared to if the context weren’t there. Second, getting back to the topic of the article, variation in function words’ use & frequency can be readily observed when context reduces the need for extra content words. And finally, it means that in order to carry out & understand a conversation more than half full of “meaningless” function words, speakers have to possess a great awareness of their social milieu.

The ability to use [function words] is a marker of basic social skills – and analysing how people use function words reveals a great deal about their social worlds.

While we may not give these humble words much thought, there’s a lot of insight to be gained by studying their use. So what are some of the things that researchers studying usage of pronouns have found?

[…there] are people who use articles at very high rates and others who rarely use them. Men tend to use them at higher rates than women. Gender aside, high article users tend to be more organised, emotionally stable, conscientious, politically conservative and older.

Using his students’ essays as data, Dr. Pennebaker of UT-Austin identified formal, analytic, & narrative writers by noting differences in stylistic use of function words. He was able to show that each writing style was associated with a different set of personality traits. I’ll let you read the article to get a run-down of each writing style, but here’s his breakdown for analytic writers:

Formal writing often appears stiff, sometimes humourless, with a touch of arrogance. It includes high rates of articles and prepositions but very few I-words, and infrequent discrepancy words, such as “would”, and adverbs. Formality is related to a number of important personality traits. Those who score highest in formal thinking tend to be more concerned with status and power and are less self-reflective. They drink and smoke less and are more mentally healthy, but also tend to be less honest. As people age, their writing styles tend to become more formal.

As you can see, there’s a lot to be gleaned just by looking at how a person uses function words! Makes me wonder what my writing style says about me. If you’re wondering about what your writing style might say about you, check out the exercises associated with Dr. Pennebaker’s book here. You’ll be asked to do things like spend 5 minutes describing an object & you’ll then be given feedback on what your response says about your personality. It’s pretty neat & I suggest having some fun with it!

Megan L. Risdal

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