I doubt that you have ever considered King Lear (the character, not the entire play) and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in the same breath. I certainly hadn’t—until I read The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, by James W. Pennebaker, published recently by Bloomsbury. Of course, some might say that any comparison of the two would be elevating Giuliani to undeserved heights. But Pennebaker, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has conducted analyses of both men’s ways of speaking under certain circumstances with surprisingly similar results.
I’ll come back to Lear and Rudy later. First, I have to confess that I originally decided to review this book without knowing anything about it, simply because I found its title rather intriguing and vaguely sexy—as if pronouns were a kind of person, with a hidden, exciting existence, perhaps with special layers of literary meanings depending on the writer (She by H. Rider Haggard! I Don’t Know How She Does It! Kiss Me, Kate!). Or perhaps it would conduct explications de texte of Proust’s use of I in Du côté de chez Swann. Whatever I expected, it turned out to have nothing to do with the book’s subject—and yet perhaps, in the end, it did. As a psychologist, what Pennebaker is interested in is what people think and feel and how they express those thoughts and feelings. Well, sure, you say—of course how people use pronouns would be intimately connected with their feelings. And that is partly what this book is about.
Me, me, me?
On the broadest of levels, Pennebaker’s thesis—and the evidence he produces for it is pretty convincing—is twofold: first, as we might expect, that the types of pronouns each of us uses can say a lot about us, individually and as part of a group; second, and perhaps more surprisingly, that our use of pronouns (and other small, common words) is probably at least as important as our use of any other vocabulary or ideas in giving insight into our personalities and the social groups we belong to. In other words, if you wrote something—or simply told it to a tape recorder or a listener—about some episode from your childhood, say, Pennebaker could probably tell as much about the kind of person you were by your use of words like I or we or a or the or but (because this book is not just about pronouns but about a lot of small, unimportant-seeming words) as he could by your descriptive vocabulary and the actual content of the story you were telling.
All of this is based on computerized language analysis, something that in the Google age seems intuitively easy to understand—we all know that the ads that pop up when we do a search are based on words used in that search—but which is crucial to Pennebaker’s whole m.o.: basically, until it became possible to plug enormous amounts of written material into a program and search for specific correlations and compare them to other correlations, this kind of research was impossible, at least on a scale that makes it scientifically believable rather than anecdotal. Pennebaker works with a tool known as LIWC (pronounced “Luke”), which stands for “linguistic inquiry and word count.” Here are some basic facts that emerge about our language when very large (tens or hundreds of thousands of examples) amounts of it are subjected to LIWC: 30 percent of all the words we speak or write (and the average English speaker has a vocabulary of about 100,000 words) consists of about 20 or so of what Pennebaker calls “stealth” (because we tend not to notice them) or “function” words: pronouns like I and her, articles like a, and the, conjunctions like and and but, prepositions like to, on and with. The longest of the top 20 words have only four letters and none of them has more than one syllable. Pennebaker does this analysis with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: 37 percent of it is made up not of the words we remember, like nation or war, but of these same little function words. One interesting point Pennebaker makes in passing is that these function words are hard to master after about age 12.
Learning another language as an adult is usually quite difficult. However, most people can quickly learn the words for objects, numbers and colors. They can also memorize the words for, in, above, with and related words. But mastering the use of most common function words in an ongoing conversation is far more difficult. In fact, you can usually tell if someone is not a native English speaker by looking at their writing. Their errors will likely be in their use of style words rather than of any nouns or regular verbs.
I can testify to the truth of this—in my work at the U.N. I have to edit English written by non-natives a lot, and they get prepositions and articles wrong all the time.
Old people are more masculine
Once Pennebaker and his colleagues began to analyze our function words, they began to discover all kinds of differences in the ways we use them. We all know that people talk and write in different ways and in different styles, and that the same person will not talk in the same way to their boss or school principal as to their best friend or their dog (at least, not usually). Being too slangy or familiar at a job interview, say, is jarring. The amazing thing, however, is that LIWC analysis of people’s use of function words reveals marked differences between all sorts of groups of people. For example, between women and men: women, it turns out, generally use more first-person-singular words (“I-words”); more cognitive words (such as think and believe); more “social” words (friend, parent, etc.); and fewer articles (a, the, etc.) than men do. In general, men use more pronouns and function words altogether—and as men and women get older, their pronoun use increases, becoming more “male.” And these distinctions are true across different languages, cultures, even centuries.
From we to I
When people are depressed or afraid or feeling insecure or inferior or even simply more emotional than usual, they use more “I-words”—you can find out more on The Secret Life of Pronouns website, where there’s a quiz you can take about I-words. I guarantee you’ll get most of it wrong (except what you may have learned from reading this review…). And here is where Rudy Giuliani and King Lear come in. Pennebaker analyzed press conferences by Giuliani in the earlier part of his career as mayor of New York, when he was the hard-hitting former prosecutor getting tough on the city’s criminals and budget. Then he compared Giuliani’s use of function words during this “arrogant period” to the way he talked after he’d gone through a very public midlife crisis: dealing with prostate cancer, dropping out of the Senate race against Hillary Clinton, dumping his wife and marrying another woman.
Compared to his first years as mayor, Giuliani demonstrated a dramatic increase in his use of I-words, a drop in big words, and an increase in his use of both positive and negative emotion words. He also shifted away from first-person plural pronouns, or “we-words”…used frequently when people are arrogant, emotionally distant and high in status….His language suggested an interesting personality switch from cold and distanced to someone who was more warm and immediate.
Pennebaker was struck by the familiarity of this contrast and realized that he had seen the same change happen with Lear between the beginning of the play—when the king imperiously demands proof that his daughters love him and banishes his beloved youngest, Cordelia, when she refuses—and his final speech, when he has lost both his kingdom and his daughter.
Know that we have divided in three our kingdom and it is our fast intent to shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths while we unburdened crawl toward death. [from Act I, Scene 1)
Oh, you are men of stone. Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so that heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever! I know when one is dead and when one lives. She is dead as earth…I might have saved her; now she’s gone forever. Cordelia! Stay a little…” [from Act V, Scene 3)
“The relative usage of pronouns and big words by Giuliani and Lear in their early arrogant periods compared with their post-trauma warm-and-honest periods,” says Pennebaker, “is almost disconcerting.” And, he adds proudly, “Life imitates art and science is here to record it.” It is the mark of the success of this genuinely fascinating book that once you’ve read it you absolutely cannot help noticing examples of the kinds of word usage it describes everywhere you go. Speaking personally, I think maybe I should cut down on my I-words.