My Dad sent me an interesting article from New Scientist magazine recently called “The Secret Life of Pronouns”. It’s based on a book of the same name by James W. Pennebaker. Now the article was fascinating (I’ll get to it in a minute), but I just wanted to put in a quick plea first.
Please, no more books called “The Secret Life of…” The most well-known is of course The Secret Life of Bees, but we’ve also had in recent years, among many others:
- The Secret Life of Lobsters
- The Secret Life of Puppets
- The Secret Life of France
- The Secret Life of Cowboys
- The Secret Life of Nuns
- The Secret Life of Husbands
- The Secret Life of Water
- The Secret Life of Germs
- The Secret Life of Wombats
- The Secret Life of Plants
- The Secret Life of Words
- The Secret Life of Food
- The Secret Life of It Girls
Yes, these are all real books. Have I missed any? Please add to the list if you know any more! I think you get the point, anyway. Enough with the not-so-secret secret lives, please. It was a great title for one book, but please don’t apply it to every noun in the English language.
Now, on to the actual article. It seems that our use of pronouns can reflect our psychological state. Pennebaker studied people who had suffered a traumatic experience, and discovered that the more they changed from using first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) to using others such as we, you, she and they, the better their health became. Pronoun use reflected psychological state. It was also influenced by gender, age, class and other factors.
I was also interested in the separation of language into “content” words and “function” words. Function words are the small, unobtrusive words that we naturally skip over. In the last sentence, for example, “the” and “that”. Our brains naturally focus on content – the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that describe the things we are seeing, doing or thinking. But the 450 function words in the English language account for an extraordinary 55% of all the words we use. So although the average English speaker has a vocabulary of 100,000 words and more than 99.9% of those are content words, the content words still account for less than half of all the words used. (The 100,000-word vocabulary stat also shocked me, by the way – do I really know that many words? When did I learn all these words and what on earth are they?)
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I liked the example in the article of a note you find in the street: “He is around but I don’t know where. I will be back soon. Don’t do it!” Sounds like the start of a short story right there. In fact it is a sentence composed entirely of function words, and so without content it is impossible to understand. Function words require social skills to use and comprehend properly – if content words are missing, the listener often has to piece together knowledge based on context and assumptions.
What do you think of this? Are you interested in dissecting language like this, or do you prefer just to use it? And do let me know of any more “Secret Life of” books you’ve come across!