Use of emotion words in books indicates trends in history and culture

Posted on March 20, 2013 by


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Researchers from Tipping Points have for the first time tracked how words in British and American English books published in the 20th century correspond with historical and cultural trends. They categorised the words according to moods such as sadness, disgust, joy, fear and surprise.

English language is well-known for its ‘mood words’. Anyone who reads poetry or other forms of literature will know quite well what I’m getting at. Try reading literary heavyweights such as Sylvia Plath, Virgina Woolf or Charles Dickens or Henry David Thoreau, not to mention playwrights such as Shakespeare, without encountering emotional expression.

Emotion can capture a time, place, event or person like no other. Try this excerpt from William Blake’s poem ‘Broken Love’:

’Dost thou not in pride and scorn

Fill with tempests all my morn,

And with jealousies and fears

Fill my pleasant nights with tears?

Definitely in the ‘sad’ category.

Since the study included American and British English books it compared how often mood words appear in both respective forms of English literature. And the winner is…

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Difference between American English and British English 1900-2000. Figure a: Emotion words Figure b: Content-free words Figure c: Random sample Figure d: 100 largest agglomerations in the world

Americans by far have used more mood words than their ‘repressed’ cousins across the pond, but researchers found that the increase in American mood word use coincides roughly with narcissism and ant-social sentiments in US population song lyrics from 1980-2007. Maybe NWA helped tip the scales with ‘F*** the Police’ or Guns and Roses with their debut album ‘Appetite for Destruction’, sung by probably one of the most narcissistic singers who ever lived. Perhaps the angst-driven lyrics of Nirvana and similar bands also deserve some credit for popularising sentiments originally associated with punk rock that are often interpreted as ‘anti-social’.

In the 1960s and the 1920s the study found a ‘happy peak’ (let’s hear it for counterculture!) where mood words associated with happiness were used more often in books. There is also a ‘sad peak’ corresponding with the Second World War, note the severe drop in ‘happiness’ around 1939.

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While all mood words have been used less and less frequently since the early 20th century, ‘fear’ has hung on actually gaining in popularity since the 1970s. With fear leading the pack could it signify the growing anxieties of contemporary society?

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Because the volumes of data on book words from Google Books is so massive, it is likely safe to assume that the use of language in books are an indicator of culture more generally.  So in this case book words certainly reflect various fears that have plagued western society for some time including nuclear war, terrorism and climate change.  The more quality data available to researchers, the more confidence they can have in their findings. But there is one caveat: if words change meaning more frequently in coming years then it will be more difficult to do this kind of research. Take ‘wicked’ for example, which was normally associated with a negative emotion, but is now used to describe something people are excited about. In slang, ‘bad’ can mean ‘good’ depending on the context in which it is used.

There is no direct explanation as of yet for why this the use of mood words is going down in English books.  Researchers also used contemporary mood word lists from Twitter data to describe recent events, but no increase in usage was found.

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