Arts, Culture & Humanities

What Our Words Don’t Tell Us

Robin Lakoff

New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks maintains his conservative credentials by offering readers distillations of recent social science research that suggest that Americans are falling into one or another liberal-based malaise. His column of May 21, “What Our Words Tell Us,” is a case in point.

Brooks’ charm, style, and ability to grapple with intellectual ideas make his arguments persuasive. But to be a serious social scientist is to do more than skim the surface of articles in scholarly journals and offer superficial connections. In important ways, this column, like many he has written over the years, shows how complex the business of doing what seems to the outsider simple and obvious research is apt to be.

In this column, Brooks first discusses the work of three scholars, Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Brittany Gentile. Using a Google database, they look at changes in the frequencies of occurrence of several words between 1960 and 2008 – words that have to do with a society’s members’ sense of individualism vs. group cohesion: personalized, self, standout, unique, and others, vs. community, collective, share, tribe, and so forth. They found that the “individualistic” words’ frequency increased while that of the “communal” words receded.

He also cites a study by Pelin and Selin Kesibir that found that, over the 20th century, the proportion of words referring to morality (decency, virtue, conscience) decreased while that of those referring to “the ability to deliver,” (discipline, dependability) increased. (I confess that I am not sure what “the ability to deliver” means, much less what the cited examples have to do with it.).

There is also discussion on work by Daniel Klein about lexical evidence for “demoralization” – for instance, the decline since the 1930s in the frequency of words like faith and wisdom, in favor of words connoting “expertise.” (I am not sure why these changes signify “demoralization” – here as in the other cited studies there would seem to be a lot of personal prejudices and unexamined assumptions packed in under the rubric of “analysis.”)

These statistics in themselves are mildly interesting, but then, words are always going out of and coming into fashion, and it is seldom clear what these changes mean in any larger sense. But Brooks tries to suggest just such a connection between word frequency changes and (naturally) deleterious social change, over the last 50 or 100 years.

So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

And furthermore:

This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left. Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.

And if the story Brooks would like to tell is true, this shift in word usage would neatly and clearly tell us that liberalism has changed our characters in negative ways. The problem is that, even granting that the facts cited by Brooks are unequivocally correct, they cannot be used to draw Brooks’ conclusions. The link between linguistic form and real-world reference and function is tricky and complicated. Yes, sometimes the appearance of new words, and the vanishing of old ones, can tell a story about social and political change over time: when was the last time you heard “spinning jenny”? And how often did you encounter “blogosphere” 20 years ago? In cases like these, it’s easy to see the connection between usage share and cultural importance. But when one applies the same tests to words that do not refer to technological innovation or political structure and the like, the test is not nearly so reliable.

Consider “racism.” It is first attested, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the first decade of the 20th century. By Brooks’ standard, that would imply that racism, the attitude and behavior, only came into being then, and therefore only then needed a word to describe it. Similarly, “sexism,” in its current sense, is only attested in the mid-1960s. What should we make of that?

Actually, the appearance of these words at those times is a positive indicator. Racism and sexism have been endemic in our species as far back as the historical record allows us to determine, and probably further. But it was only in the 20th century that people first began to see these kinds of behaviors as something other than normal and inevitable, and therefore worthy of naming and eventually changing. To name these evils was to show them as aberrant and evil, something that could be recognized as peculiar and changeable.

So the increasing presence of “individualism” words does not necessarily mean that we have become more individualistic. It could mean that we are becoming more aware of our individualism – the first step, perhaps, to rethinking and changing it. And the fact that today we use words like “humility” less and “discipline” more may mean any of several things, or nothing.

When humans talk, and especially when we write, and most especially when we write serious moral treatises, we like to think we are saying something unique. Perhaps 20th century writers began to feel that words like “decency” and “modesty” had been worn to a nubbin and that there was not much more to be said about them that had not been said by everyone since Plato. On the other hand, “discipline” and “dependability” seem fresher, so writers may prefer to write about them.

It is hardly respectable scholarship to jump to the conclusion that changes in word frequency necessarily indicate changes in topics under discussion (new words may replace familiar ones but have similar meanings), and even if they do, it is very dubious – ethically questionable, you might say – to jump from there to the conclusion that these changes signify deep societal changes in the direction of moral decline, unless writers are prepared to make explicit and be prepared to defend their understanding of “morality” and “decline.” Social science is still, happily, distinguishable from theology.

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Comments to "What Our Words Don’t Tell Us":
    • Ellen

      Thanks, Robin, I knew there was something about the Brooks column that made me uneasy, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it!

      Actually, I just looked up “virtue” on COCA and its frequency is quite high, not because “virtue” has suddenly become a hot topic but because of the frequency of the expression “by virtue of.”

      So unless we have a context, the frequency of a particular word doesn’t tell us much, right?

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    • jenny

      Dear Robin Lakoff ,
      It’s my great honor to read your article. Above of all, thank you for sharing so wonderful article. I couldn’t agree your perspective more. Hope you could post more articles like this one and inspire more readers like me.
      Best regards

      [Report abuse]

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