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.

Book Review: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach

I was pretty sure that The Three Christs of Ypsilanti was going to be exciting. Here is the blurb on the back cover:

On July 1, 1959, at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, the social psychologist Milton Rokeach brought together three paranoid schizophranics […] The men had one thing in common: each believed himself to be Jesus Christ.

This is the type of crazy shit that was possible in the 1950s. But don’t worry, it’s all in the name of Science.

Rokeach’s investigation was “based on three simple assumptions: (1) Not all beliefs a person holds are of equal importance to him; beliefs range from central to peripheral. (2) The more central – or, in our terminology, the more primitive – a belief, the more it will resist change. (3) If a primitive belief is somehow changed, the repercussions in the rest of the system will be wide – far wider than those produced by change in a peripheral belief.”

The difference between primitive and peripheral beliefs is central to the book. Primitive beliefs, to Rokeach, “are taken for granted: a person’s primitive beliefs represent the basic truths he holds about physical reality, social reality, and himself and his own nature.” These can be backed up by other people or they can be simply based on a person’s own decisions about themselves and their world. Basically, a person’s belief in a physical object, such as a table, will be endorsed by society, while their belief in their own religious faith needs no endorsement.

Rokeach goes much deeper into the literature and research on belief systems, which was interesting to me, since I am not a psychologist. Even though Three Christs was written in the 1960s, it was all news to me. I can’t say how someone in psychology today would react to Rokeach’s descriptions, but he at least bases a lot of his assertions on the ideas of the time.

The belief system is also central to Three Christs because Rokeach’s experiment was essentially to see if he could get one or more of his three patients to change a primitive belief that they held, namely, that they were Jesus Christ. Since primitive beliefs are so resistant to change and so taken for granted, Rokeach wondered what would happen when the Christs were presented with two other people claiming the exact same identity, thereby giving each of them the ultimate contradiction to their primitive belief. Rokeach placed them together in the same ward of the same mental hospital and they had daily meetings for two years.

It’s an intriguing idea and one not without its problems. First, there is the ethical question of what Rokeach was doing. It may have been done with good intentions, but Rokeach himself admits that he “really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.” Funny that a man studying three people who believe they are Christ would describe himself as God, isn’t it? No. To some people it represents what can go horribly wrong in psychology.

A related problem with Rokeach’s study is actually voiced by one of the Christs, Leon, who says Rokeach is casting out “negative psychology,” meaning he’s doing more harm than good. This is very possible and the ways that the Christs react to Rokeach interrupting their lives and beliefs can be seen as evidence of it. It’s especially poignant because of how Leon notes that Rokeach is someone who should know better.

I must point out that there are several ways to read this book. In a review of Three Christs, wrote that “Rokeach’s book reflects a remarkably humane approach for its era,” but also noted that the book can be “starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of [the three Christs] in the service of academic curiosity.”

For another set of contrasting views, Jenny Diski writes that Three Christs can explain “the terror of the human condition, and the astonishing fact that people battle for their rights and dignity in the face of that terror, in order to establish their place in the world, whatever they decide it has to be.” Thomas Szasz, on the other hand, disagrees and says “the book is about impersonation, not mental illness – patients impersonating Christ, Rokeach impersonating a scientist studying nature. The inmates at Ypsilanti were not ‘Christs’, and everyone, including the inmates, knew it.”

All of these readings are possible. Also, after reading the book, they all seem plausible. But instead of dwelling on these different readings and clicking through to the full reviews, I would suggest that you just read the thing and take away from it what you will. It’s an extreme case, for sure, so don’t make too many generalizations about schizophrenia, the mental health system, or psychologists based on Three Christs. But get a version of the book that has the afterword which Rokeach wrote twenty years after the book was first published. In a few short pages it manages to put the study into perspective.

Speaking of Christ, happy holidays everyone.

Up next: Stardust by Neil Gaiman