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.

Click here to continue reading.

In Search of Integrity

Welcome disruption in the form of an impulse journey to Cork. The familiar is useful for many things: ease, security, comfort. But not for progression or intense coversational cogitation. There are, in other words, good reasons for seeking out a strange, half-lit living room in which to drink endless cups of hot water while reading Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society.

I bought it on a hunch, following the trail of a couple of paragraphs excerpted in a website about child development. My hope was it would shed some light, or offer a referential framework, for understanding the miseducation of Britney Spears. In the course of three mornings slung across the sofa it has proved more indicative than even I hoped. One sentence seems to summarise the whole problem, to hint at root of all root causes: “The ego, in the course of its synthesising efforts, attempts to subsume the most powerful evil and ideal prototypes… and with them the whole existing imagery of superior and inferior, good and bad, masculine and feminine, free and slave, potent and impotent, beautiful and ugly, fast and slow, tall and small, in a simple alternative, in order to make one battle and one strategy out of a bewildering number of skirmishes.”

I say “the whole problem” not “her whole problem” because the more I read, and think, and look for the links from A to B to K to Q, the more it looks like not something one person has tried and failed to reconcile, but something which we are all impelled to negotiate. The “it”, the “something” is, of course, our relationship to the world. Who and where we are, what we do, why we do it. As Erikson phrases it: “The acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no subsitutions.”

He calls it “integrity” — the same word Woolf uses to describe the essential quality of great art. It is a word usually deployed as a synonym for “honesty” or “rightness” but it signifies more than just following the rules. In fact a person “of integrity” in the conventional sense might not actually have any integrity at all. Submission to social mores can often be aggressively anti-integrity, if it separates a person from themselves.

This is where my conventional beginning-middle-end journalistic dialectic breaks down and I have to stop writing because the particular verbal pathway I’m on leads to complication, not resolution.