Sad books

I’m reading Little Women for the first time and it’s fantastic, but, oh my, Beth is ill and I’m sad. I tend not to read books that make me feel sad and a study published earlier this year suggests that books are being written to meet my preference. Books have steadily started to use fewer instances of emotional language over the 1900s (you can read the original study here).

The study used the Ngram database to look at words used to describe emotion in English books over the 1900s and they found an overall decrease in emotional language. They also found that since the 1960s American books expressed more emotion than in Britain, keeping up a popular stereotype of the British ‘stiff upper lip’. We don’t know if this use of language reflects society’s emotions, although the correlations between emotions and historical events such as the world wars suggest it does.

I really love the idea of using language corpora to look at society and literature, but there could obviously be problems with the conclusions. As the study writers say, it might be that the words to describe emotions have changed over the years, instead of the use of the words lessening. I wonder if perhaps books still have as strong an emotional impact, but the emotions are triggered less explicitly? Perhaps looking to see if people’s perceptions of emotional content correlate with the findings might be interesting? There is probably a study out there on this somewhere. I wonder if something like Goodreads, filled with a large online collection of reviews, could be mined to see what books are discussed as causing an emotional response and if there was any pattern to when these books were written. Obviously this would bias books that are still popular today and throw up other problems, but it might be an interesting study. 


Character quiz

It’s Book Week Scotland at the moment and they have a “Who in literature are you?”) quiz. Apparently I’m Elizabeth Bennet. I was thinking how silly these quizes are – even I don’t know which literary character I would say I was like – when I remembered my indignation at one quiz telling me I was like Romeo and Juliet’s Juliet. So I clearly do have ideas of which characters I share traits with.

I remember when I read Pride and Prejudice when I was a young teen and identified with Jane. However, I’ve definitely grown into more of an Elizabeth Bennet, but with an edge more shyness. A bit of Elizabeth, a little of Hermione Granger perhaps? I imagine these are two of the most identified with characters in literature! Who else might also be on a “most identified with” list?


Word of the Year: selfie

Oxford Dictionaries has named “selfie” Word of the Year (WOTY). You can see their announcement and the other contenders on their short-list here. To qualify it needs to be a word that attracted attention in 2013, so it was likely to be a relative neologism (although its first recorded use is 2002). Because it’s a newish word I imagine nearly any choice would have attracted criticism. While I’ve used it, I’m not personally a huge fan of ‘selfie’. However, I think it’s a useful word: there are a lot of self-taken photos on social media and so a word to describe them is needed. It’s obviously thought to be useful by many or else its increase in use by 17,000% over the last year wouldn’t have happened!

The WOTY is picked on its ‘lasting potential as a word of cultural significance’. Does selfie really have lasting potential? While social media is still incredibly popular, its constant change means words that words that were popular can fall out of use very quickly. Looking at the previous WOTY lists, the 2005 and 2009 American winners (podcast and unfriend) are also both technology related and are both still in use so maybe there is hope for the longevity of selfie?

The word is formed by combining ‘self’ with the ‘ie’ suffix. The ‘ie’ is a variant of ‘y’ and is used to form diminutive nouns and pet names. It’s a class maintaining derivation, so self (noun) becomes selfie (also a noun). A suggestion is that making it a diminutive by adding ‘-ie’ might soften narcissistic connotations to make it seem more cute. I’d suggest that a selfie – from the use of ‘self’ – can also help people take back control of their own outward identities (something well suited to social media), rather than being narcissist, but that’s a rambling for another day.

Interestingly as well as likely beginning in Australia, selfie it was named WOTY in both the UK and US Oxford Dictionaries, showing the reach of ‘selfie’ across English dialects. Its importance can be seen in its linguistic productivity, such as the formation of ‘bookshelfie’, which I talked about in August. Do I still think it shouldn’t be word of the year? I don’t know. I might not like the ‘sound’ of it, but it’s clearly of linguistic importance at the moment.


The affect of words

The study in this article from IFLS is really exciting because it shows the possibility of developing ways to communicate with some people who are in a vegetative state.

One of the people in the study could pay attention to individual words and had the ability to follow some commands. While a bit of a way off yet, the results of this study could help develop a way to allow the patient and others like them to communicate with the outside world. Language and the brain are so exciting!