Book Review: The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

In the last paragraph of the first chapter of The Secret Life of Pronouns, James Pennebaker makes a confusing statement: “If you are a serious linguist, this book may disappoint or infuriate you.” This sounds discouraging, especially in these days of pop pseudoscience books, which are all theories and no facts. If Pennebaker is already throwing in the towel to “serious” readers, is it really worth reading on?

The statement is all the more confusing because of what precedes it in the preface. In an explanation of the purpose of his book, Pennebaker says that it is

organized around some of my favorite topics in psychology and the social sciences – personality, gender, deception, leadership, love, history, politics, and groups. The goal is to show how the analysis of function words [like pronouns, articles, and prepositions] can lead to new insights in each of these topics. At the same time, I want you to appreciate ways of thinking about and analyzing language. No matter what your personal or professional interest, I hope you come to see the world differently and can use this knowledge to better understand yourself and others […] Although the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological states.

That’s what makes the part about infuriating serious linguists all the more confusing. You might think that Pennebaker is saying linguists can only be interested in language for its own sake (whatever that is), his very next sentences state

Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. With advancements in computer technologies, this approach is informing a wide range of scholars across many disciplines – linguists, neuroscientists, psycholinguists, developmentalists, computer scientists, computational linguists, and others.

So I’m guessing that Pennebaker is trying to guard his book against criticism from serious linguists, but while that may be the case, I think his worry is unfounded. It’s true that there are non-fiction books out there that should do themselves a favor and ask not to be read critically, but it is also true that there are some very interesting linguistics books that can be enjoyed by both the general public and serious linguists alike. Pennebaker’s book falls into the latter category. Even if I feel that some of his analyses called for more detail or data, The Secret Life of Pronouns is after all a book aimed at the general public, not a scholarly article. I would recommend this book to anyone, even serious linguists.

(As a side note, the more I use the term “serious linguist” the more I like it. It’s definitely going in the act, but I’m going to write it Serious Linguist.)

A final interesting thing about The Secret Life of Pronouns is that the accompanying website lets you take a few exercises to see what your words “reveal about you.” Most of them tell you what your own writing says about your personality, but you can also run an email conversation through the machine to see how in sync the people are check the personality behind a Twitter account. The results will straight up tell you not to take them too seriously, but had the crystal ball check Rick Santorum’s Twitter account. It said he rated low in every area of thinking style, but high in the “arrogant/distant” area of social style. Coincidence? You would think Rick Santorum could have hired someone to handle his Twitter account…




Up next: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, which is the first post in a series about this topic.


Whatever Happened to Innovation in the USA?

Or, why the difference between innovation from above and innovation from below matters

In a recent interview on NPR’s Science Friday program, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist* Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about innovation. Tyson has written a new book which discusses, among other things, the way that society benefited from innovation in the space race of the 1960s. With this post I want to tell you about my own experience with innovation in the USA and the two different types of innovation there are, an idea that should be raised more often.

Tyson argues that the innovation needed in space travel – the innovation needed to go farther and farther every single day – brought untold benefits to society through the engineers it needed, the products it created (which were applied elsewhere), through the economy it stimulated, etc. He has a point, but I’m interested to see if he mentions that the reason society benefits from such innovation is because it is the type of innovation that is writ large over society. The space race was innovation on a large scale. It was the driving force (and in some ways the weapon) of the Cold War. Hence everyone in society was indebted to this large scale innovation. When everyone has a stake in the innovation of a country, as they did in the space race, there is a collective agreement of the benefit of innovation. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it is innovative.

Innovation on a small scale, however, is a different story. Innovation from below, as it could be called, takes a entirely different mind set. In business, it sometimes comes out of necessity – innovate or go bust. This is similar to the innovation of the space race. But micro-innovation (let’s settle on this term, shall we?) also comes about unforced. Sometimes a clever person, whose business is more or less fine the way it is, recognizes the benefits of an innovative idea and, to use the official business-speak term, capitalizes on it. More often than not, however, micro-innovation is passed over. Allow me to offer an example.

I used to work for a company in the US. This company had a program to welcome new employees into the fold. The program was called something like Welcome, New Employees, Into The Fold™. In this program, new employees were asked to read a chapter from a best-selling business how-to manifesto. The chapter talked about the real-life innovative leader who built an innovative tech company on innovation. Naturally, I assumed the take-away message was supposed to be “Innovation. We like. So should you.” I was informed later that it was “Do as we say, not as our favorite manifesto chapter tells you.” Makes you wonder why they bothered to waste the paper, but then again, that’s what manifestos are all about.

Shortly after I left this company (on good terms), I offered them an innovative way to increase their sales. I would use my training in linguistics to study their marketing campaigns and I would to do it for free. The benefit for me was that my research would allow me to write my master’s thesis. It was a win-win. (I’m intentionally being vague about my master’s thesis since, so far as I can tell, it really is innovative. It’s at least the kind of research that could launch a career in either business or academia, depending on the results. Interested parties can feel free to contact me.)

And yet, like most micro-innovation cases, my idea was denied. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are some obvious answers as to why. First, business professionals are a cautious to cowardly bunch. If you told them of the chances that they would be killed in a car accident on the way to work, they would find a reason to work from home. So when faced with the opportunity to increase their sales by doing nothing but allowing a post grad student to analyze their marketing texts, they find ways to say no, to brush it off, or to disregard it. Creating one’s own misfortune is not unheard of, even in the business world.

A second reason why my idea was turned down has to do with the “business as usual” mind set. My former employer makes millions each year, They fear change because they assume it’s going to be change for the worse. More importantly, while there’s no telling what kind of profit my innovation could have brought them, it’s safe to assume it would have been in the thousands of dollars. That’s chump change for mid-sized American companies. Why should they take on my idea when business as usual is already bringing in millions?

Finally, and most relevant to the macro-innovation that Mr. Tyson talked about, is the fact that micro-innovation is not established in the US. There is no culture of post graduate students doing research for companies to complete their degree. There is a culture of small innovations making big waves, but these are all either start-ups or internal happenings at large companies (like 3M). There is no zeitgeist of micro-innovation, no pressure from society on creating it day after day, and no agreement that it brings untold benefits to those who seize it. Yet it comes up all the time.

This last notion is related to the type of micro-innovation that comes out of necessity because companies can live or die on it. Most people with an innovative idea have a very good reason for why it will be successful. If they are declined by one company, they are not likely to give up on the idea. They are simply going to move on to the next company. And that spells danger for the companies who passed on the innovation. So instead of companies living by the “be innovative or die” motto, there are also those remembered by the “we died because we were not innovative” warning.

And nobody writes chapters in business books about those companies.

* Except maybe this guy.

Book Review: Babel No More by Michael Erard

In Babel No More, Michael Erard goes on a search for hyperpolyglots – people who are said to speak over six languages. But he also wants to know about the legendary hyperpolyglots who are rumored to speak more than 50, 60, or even 70 languages. You can therefore understand why I approached this book with a healthy dose of skepticism. Do I believe one person can speak 70 languages? No. Do I believe that other people believe that someone can speak 70 languages? Yes. After all, that’s where the legends of these hyperpolyglots came from. But I’ve had training in linguistics. Language is a trickier subject for me.

I was skeptical that Erard would not approach the subject of hyperpolyglots with as much skepticism as me. Fortunately, I was wrong. Erard is on point with the nature of language learners, separating the fact from fiction in the legend of the hyperpolyglot:

The hyperpolyglot embodies both of these poles: the linguistic wildness of our primordial past and the multilingualism of the looming technotopia. That’s why stories circulate about this or that person who can speak an astounding number of languages – such people are holy freaks. Touch one, you touch his power. […] Once you say you speak ten languages, you’ll soon hear the gossip that you speak twenty or forty. That’s why people who speak several languages have been mistrusted as spies; people wonder where their loyalties lie.

Jacket design by Zocalo Design

Needless to say, Erard finds many interesting characters in his journey of hyperpolyglots. It’s part of what makes the book so interesting. But he also gets into how language works. And, thankfully, he doesn’t do it from a best-seller pop-science fascinating-but-total-bullshit way. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is, but I can give you a sample quote:

Language, however, encompasses more than the communicating we sometimes do with it. If language had evolved solely for the means of communication, we’d rarely misunderstand each other. Instead, we have a system in which worlds mean more than one thing, in which one can devise many sentences to capture the same idea, in which one moment of silence means more than a thousand pictures. No animal species could survive this intensity of ambiguity. Moreover, people don’t appreciate how little of our meaning is in our words, even as we decipher hand gestures, facial movements, body postures automatically every day. What we mean is implied by us and then inferred by our listeners.

The real beauty of Babel No More, however, is the way in which Erard demystifies the process of language learning without removing the wonderment that people attribute to it. If anything, when you better understand the multifaceted nature of language learning, you will appreciate it more, while at the same time avoid being fooled into thinking someone could speak 70 languages or that someone who speaks more than three must be a spy.


Up next: The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.

Lexicon Valley Shout Out

I mentioned the podcast Lexicon Valley in my post last week, “Is Your Mother a Geek? Linguistics and the Ramones.” If you haven’t checked it out already, you should.

I’m plugging it again because the third episode is up and I got a shout out for my submission to their LexiConundrum puzzle. Co-host Mike Vuolo gave two initial letters and the task of the puzzle was to come up with adjectival present participles that matched. For example, firing squad would fit in the given initials F___ S___.

Mr. Vuolo was being nice by not saying my name and broadcasting the extreme nerdiness of my sense of humor. I thank him for that, but anyone who knows me knows that I have no such concern. And so, the joke was:

Adjectival Present Participles = Worst. Band name. Ever.

This week’s episode discusses “the hypercorrected incorrectness of ‘between you and I.'” The LexiConundrum asks listeners to submit a name for a specific type of usage of this term. Check out the feed here. The archives are here.

Confidential to Mr. Vuolo: From one nerdy joker to another, that was a good one. I’m going to pretend such a conversation took place between Mick and Keith because it sounds hilarious.

Is Your Mother a Geek? Linguistics and the Ramones*

Besides being a great song on a great album (Leave Home), “Suzy is a Headbanger” by the Ramones also has a very interesting line:

Suzy is a headbanger,
Her mother is a geek.

These lyrics puzzled me because they didn’t really make any sense. It wasn’t until I read the term “feed the geek” in Babel No More by Michael Erard (review forthcoming) that I decided to look into it. It turns out, the reason the lyrics didn’t make sense to me was because I was thinking of geek in its contemporary sense, the one Macmillan defines as “n. Someone who is boring, especially because they seem to be interested only in computers.” Even more recently, as we all know, the term has become to mean something like enthusiast or to describe a particular way of practicing some activity (as in geek sex). But since “Suzy” was written around 1976, those are obviously not the intended meanings.

The problem is, I’m having a hard time believing that Joey Ramone meant the other, older sense of the word. I looked at multiple dictionaries, but all of them basically defined this sense as “n. A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.” Mmm! Mothers bring your daughters, fathers brings your sons!

So what’s going on? Did he really mean to sing geek? If he didn’t mean that Suzy’s mom is a circus freak and he couldn’t have meant that she’s a computer nerd, what did he mean? The song obviously portrays Suzy in a positive light, so was he doing something like Bob Dylan did in his song “Ballad of a Thin Man” and questioning what we think of as normalcy?

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak ?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone.

– Bob Dylan, Ballad of the Thin Man

Or did geek have a meaning specific to punks in New York (or punks anywhere) in the 1970s?

There was a 70s Australian punk band in Perth called the Geeks, but knowing what I know about punk rockers, they tend to relish in classifying themselves as the outcasts. It’s a way to welcome someone in and strengthen group identity (The Ramones chant, “Gabba! Gabba! We accept you, we accept you! One of us!” perfectly encapsulates this notion). So were they saying that Suzy’s mom was one of them?

Besides the Perth band, I couldn’t find any connection of geek to the 1970s punk rock scene, so I decided to look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English. If geek was being used by the punks in the 70s, I assumed it was also being used by at least the music journalists as well. I just hoped it was being used in the same way. There were two hits for “geek.[nn1]” in the 1970s, both being the carnival kind of geek. The 1980s is where things start to change since there are five hits – two carnival geeks, two nerd geeks, and one I’m not really sure of (it’s hard to tell from the bit context). After that, the usage really takes off with thirty-three hits in the 1990s and 104 hits in the 2000s.

This still hasn’t answered my question, however. Certainly another word besides geek would fit there just as easily, especially if you’re rhyming it with “ooh ooh wee.” But there’s the catch. I want to conclude that Joey was speaking positively of Suzy’s mother, but that’s not realistic. Joey was most likely using geek to describe a disapproving mother.

Wordnik, which is a great site, lists one definition of geek as “n. An unfashionable or socially undesirable person.” Today there might be wide agreement on which type of person is a geek (because we’re all so cool, you know, man?), but what’s interesting is that in “Suzy is a Headbanger” we have a counter-culture band, who by no means owned the majority stake of Cool, using geek to insult a member of another group. But the reason he’s doing so is that he sees Suzy’s mother as being judgmental, which is not a trait often attributed to geeks. So there’s a disconnect between the connotations of the two meanings of geek, which suggests the term was in flux. Notice also that insulting someone else by calling them a geek is simultaneously an attempt to prove one’s cool, but that’s beside the point.

I think geek is a great case of how quickly words can change their meanings, something linguistics call “semantic shift.” It’s also a simple example of what linguistics mean when they say, “We’re not sure.” Words are tricky things to pin down, especially when they are ones that are used infrequently. Add to that someone using the word in a novel way (or at least with a slightly different meaning) and things get even trickier. Had Joey’s meaning taken off, we might today be using geek to describe older people who disapprove of the younger generation’s activities. Geek then would have a decidedly uncool meaning. Instead, being a geek is an aspiration since it means not only enthusiasm, but knowledge and mastership of a certain area. The success of this meaning of geek, of course, is obviously due to the success of computers and the success of geek as an adjective to be applied to any and all activities. In this way, later in Babel No More, Michael Erard can write, “Indeed, boasting about the languages one has studied or can speak is a display of geek machismo,” and everyone understands the meaning.

As a side note, for those interested in linguistics, semantic shift, or the etymology of contemptuous words, I recommend checking out’s new podcast Lexicon Valley. They have two episodes and both are excellent. What’s even better, and even more pertinent to this article, is that in the second episode, entitled “The Other F-Word,” you get to hear linguist Arnold Zwicky reference Pansy Division. What a headbanger.

[Update – July 24, 2012] The Oxford Dictionaries blog has written twice about geek. The most recent post compares the collocates of geek to nerd in their corpus, while the older post explains the transformation in the meaning of geek. Sadly, there is no mention of the Ramones. Maybe it’s time for them to update their corpus?

Here are the posts:
Embrace Your Geekness – July 13, 2012
Are You Calling Me a Geek? Why, *Thank You* – March 4, 2011




*These are a few of my favorite things.

Two thoughts on two recent OED Words of the Day

1. The OED’s word of the day for January 24 was doryphore (subscription to OED required):

doryphore, n.
One who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly.

If only this word was more common, we’d have the perfect term to describe 99% of internet commentors.


2. The OED’s Word of the Day yesterday (Jan. 29) was green man. I think the first definition is the most appropriate in this day and age:

green man, n.
1. a. In outdoor shows, pageants, masques, etc.: a man dressed in greenery, representing a wild man of the woods or seasonal fertility. Now hist.

“Now historical”? Like many, many thousands of green people from history times? Class.