The Secret Life of Language

Go, go, go to The Nervous Breakdown to read my profile of psychologist and author James Pennebaker, a lovely man bursting with clever ideas who was kind enough to share his time to talk about life, linguistics and his book The Secret Life of Pronouns.

Academics are easy to caricature. Sketch a figure in a rumpled suit jacket with messy hair and a pair of glasses clinging doggedly to the tip of his nose and you’ll win that round of Pictionary. Dr James Pennebaker, though, defies expectations. A renowned researcher, author, and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, he blends down-to-earth bonhomie with a taste for Lanesborough Hotel martinis, and hones his brilliant mind with long-distance running.

I contacted Dr Pennebaker after reading an excerpt from his latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns. The product of fifteen years of research, The Secret Life of Pronouns argues that the way people use pronouns – the itty-bitty words like ‘you’, ‘I’ and ‘we’ that account for more than half of daily conversation – can predict things like emotional state (depressed people say “I” a lot), social status (powerful people use “I” less frequently), or truthfulness (liars tend to say “we”). No self-respecting word geek could fail to be intrigued.

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Lucy Kellaway on Writing Right

Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times is my new literary crush. She writes acerbic, funny, insightful things about language and its (mis)-uses. Think George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ for the 21st century.

A brief excerpt from one of her recent FT columns on the troublesome issue of bios…

The other day I was invited to a dinner for non-executive directors to talk about women on boards. Even though I would much rather watch MasterChef on the television than go out and discuss this most worn-out of subjects, I said yes because I liked the person arranging it.

Before the event I had to send in a “brief bio”, so I dashed off something like: “Lucy Kellaway is a journalist at the FT, on the board of Admiral and has written various books.” It was short, to the point and based on a model favoured by Ronald Reagan. A friend told me he had seen his delightfully succinct bio at a grand do in the 1980s: “Ronald Reagan is President of the United States”.

In due course I received a list of the other guests’ bios and saw how outlandish my single sentence looked among the short essays they had submitted. I now see that there is a problem with the Reagan model: it doesn’t work quite as well if you aren’t president of the US. Indeed, the less important you are, the more words it seems you need. But looking at these bios – containing facts like “x played intercollegiate basketball three decades ago” or “y serves on the boards of 17 charities” – made me wonder about this trickiest of literary genres. How long should they be? What should they contain? It seems that the bio is trying to do two things: to say who you are and to show you are different from (and more interesting than) other people. Most overdo the first by being too long, and underdo the second.

Word-Music: Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Posted by Cila Warncke

Abraham Lincoln

An ill-remembered half-line lodged in my head today, something about seeing the right as God gave us to see and the rhythm beckoned me to track it down. I tried the Gettysburg Address first. Nope. Though it, too, swells with marvellous verbal music. The nagging phrase comes from the final paragraph of Abe Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

This is the most famous part of the speech, but it frankly doesn’t match the rhetorical majesty of what preceeds it:

Fellow-Countrymen:
AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Pedant’s Delight

Posted by Cila Warncke

I’m not sure which is sadder: that I love poring over lists of commonly confused English words or that I am happy to publically admit I do so. Both will undoubtedly come to haunt me.

The cards are stacked (quite properly, I imagine) against all professional aesthetes, and no doubt we all deserve the dark, wordy, academic deaths we all sooner or later die. — Zooey JD Salinger

Daily Pennsylvanian: Loud, Obnoxious and decidedly American

Thanks to Google I’ve just stumbled across a column I wrote for the Daily Pennsylvanian some eight years ago. I was their foreign correspondent for a term, while studying at London’s King’s College. An excruciating tutorial there formed the basis for this column.

All I could think was that I’ll never be able to open my mouth in this class again. He was ruining it for me, ruining everything with his grating tone, his blatant rudeness, the patronizing way he kept interrupting other students to correct their opinions. If only he was German or French or Dutch or Spanish, I would have been all right. But he was American. As much as I wanted to light into him, my tongue was tied by the sudden awareness that my voice and accent would betray me in an instant. It wouldn’t matter what I said, my accent would stamp me just as quickly as his had identified him — and equate us beyond my power of control.

Until that mortifying hour in my critical theory class, surrounded by British students who were — justifiably — looking daggers at this specimen of Americana, I hadn’t realized to what extent language shapes and projects our identity.

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