Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Power of Words

My high school Latin teacher once pointed out the complexities of the English language; our tendency to borrow from other languages and the sheer number of irregular nouns makes English deceptively difficult to learn for English as a second language learners. Perhaps what interested me the most during his tangent was the correlation between history, culture, and the words we borrowed.

For example: 'Book' comes to our language by way of Germanic roots while 'novel' has it's origins in French. When comparing usage of the two words, there is a subconscious tendency to endow a 'novel' with a higher level of literature, though both are essentially written pages bound together. My teacher had surmised that this was due to the influence of the Norman rule of England after 1066; Norman French became the ruling class language while the conquered England retained use of Old English. To this day, words adopted from the Anglo-Norman language hold a higher intellectual status than those of Old English etymology.

In College, I was assigned Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, and my love affair with semantics and linguistics was solidified. Sontag argues that the use of certain words when describing medical conditions leaves a psychological imprint on both the patient and how others view the patient. The fact that we call patients who live through a cancer diagnosis "cancer survivors" implies that cancer is an invading force, the body the battlefield, and that those that did not survive were not strong enough or brave enough.

I could wax on about the use of language in race, disabilities, or classroom instruction, but I want to discuss an article published in July/August's issue of Scientific American Mind entitled You are what you say. Author Jan Donges describes a computer program that analyzes text called Linguistic Inquiry and Word count or LIWC. There is some interesting discussion describing the use of LIWC to analyze the 2008 Presidential candidates (more of which can be found at What caught my attention though was a section on using LIWC to assess the recovery progress of trauma patients.
Again, the researcher showed that content was unimportant. The factor that was most clearly associated with recovery was the use of pronouns. Patients whose writing changed perspective from day to day were less likely to seek medical treatment during the follow-up period.

It may be that patients who described their situation both from their own viewpoint and from the perspective of others recovered more quickly from traumatic experiences - a variation on the already well-established idea that writing about negative experiences is therapeutic. Or perhaps the LSA [latent semantic analysis] simply detected the patients' recovery as reflected by their writing but not brought about by it...
I never really thought of level of empathy as a specific diagnosis of trauma, depression or mental disability but in retrospect it does seem to make sense. For those that suffer from depression, there is a sense of alienation and isolation. This social isolation may be perceived or self-inflicted, but it does exist to the sufferer. I can only imagine that someone who has suffered through a traumatic experience also feels a sense of "why did this happen to me." That in their trial, they developed a defensive mechanism that places them squarely against the rest of the world.

I'm sure everyone has had that experience where you speak to someone who is completely unwilling to view a situation from another perspective. Not implying stubbornness is an indicator of mental illness, but someone who is so emotional or upset is not able to step out of the 'me' world. I know that I am guilty of this when truly incensed.

Next time I have to debate a point or argue with someone I might start paying attention to the use of pronouns. Who would have thought that pronouns or articles could carry as much psychological weight as nouns and adjectives.

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