What changes in language use can tell us about society
By Shaunacy Ferro
The words that consistently pop up in published literature can tell us a lot about individual and cultural trends and values. Are people talking about their emotions more? Are people feeling depressed?
Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, decided to use word frequency patterns to identify how people’s values have shifted over time from the sociological concepts of gemeinschaft (translated from German as community, reflecting a rural society with a subsistence economy) and gesellschaft (translated as society, reflecting an urban, wealthy, technological culture).
By analyzing word frequency data from more than a million books published in the United States and Britain between 1800 and 2000, using Google Books Ngram Viewer, Greenfield found that our language has slowly shifted to focus on individualism and material gain. We now use more individual-focused words like “get” and “choose,” rather than group-focused words like “give” and “obliged.”
Greenfield was looking for more than a simple change in slang or word preference, so she also looked at data from synonyms and related words to see if they underwent the same usage changes. For example, for “choose” and “obliged” she also looked at usages of “decision” and “duty.”
Words like “choose” and “get” have increased in relative frequency over time, an uptick Greenfield attributes to the historical shift from living in more spread out, rural places to living in a more urban, individualistic environment with an emphasis on materialism. As materialistic word frequency increased, the concurrent decline in words like “obliged” and “give” might indicate a departure from rural life that revolved around greater social responsibility.
“Get” usage took a little dip during World War II and the civil rights movement, suggesting a possible decline in self-interest in favor of the collective good during those times.
Nonetheless, other signs indicate that these days, we’re largely looking out for No. 1, and perhaps bucking more traditional societal structures. Since 1800, words like “self,” “unique” and “individual” have been increasing in relative frequency, while “authority,” “obedience,” “belong” and “pray” have been on the decline.
“This research shows that there has been a two-century–long historical shift toward individualistic psychological functioning adapted to an urban environment and away from psychological functioning adapted to a rural environment,” Greenfield said in a statement. “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.”
Next, Greenfield hopes to replicate her findings with Google Books data in other languages, including Spanish, Russian and Chinese.
The study appears in the August 8 issue of Psychological Science.