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As You Write, So You Are

August 21, 2013

As a child of the sixties, I was immersed in many of that decade's cultural movements, the slogan of one being, "you are what you eat." Most of the country didn't buy into that "hippie" paradigm, and it was simultaneously torpedoed by the food industry, which annually added new ingredients to every prepared food item. After all, who would want to buy a cookie without propylene glycol?

You're not only what you eat, you're also what are what you say. Fortunately, I was born in a region of Upstate New York where the people spoke essentially unaccented English. Some educated people from the New York metropolitan area have been forced to spend considerable time and money to rid themselves of its heavy regional accent. One of our secretaries had an endearing way of saying "coffee," but her accent would have prevented her from getting a job at a television anchor desk.

Nowadays, the written word is as important as the spoken word, because everyone is accessing social media, and some are writing blogs. As a consequence, you're also what you write. What people write in the aggregate can be analyzed by the Google Ngram Viewer, which allows an examination of the frequency of occurrence of words as a function of time for the many books and other publications that Google has indexed.[1-4] I've written about the Ngram Viewer in a few previous articles:
• Culturomics, January 13, 2011

• Physics Top Fifty, July 19, 2011

• Word Extinction, August 17, 2011

• Modeling Scientific Citation, December 16, 2011

• Plotting Emotions.April 10, 2013
The Ngram Viewer is being used in research to identify trends. These trends are necessarily long-term, since the data run over the course of many decades and end in 2000. In this case, we work with a converse principle, "as you write, so you are." A recent paper by UCLA psychologist, Patricia M. Greenfield, in the journal, Psychological Science, uses the Ngram Viewer to quantify the rise in individualism, at least among writers of the English language. Surprisingly, the trend towards "me" from "us" is not recent. It's been progressing in the same time frame as urbanization.[5-8]

The Ngram data of the time evolution of such words as give, get, obliged, choose, individual and obedience, show the trend away from community and towards the individual. From the article abstract,
"Adaptation to rural environments prioritizes social obligation and duty, giving to other people, social belonging, religion in everyday life, authority relations, and physical activity. Adaptation to urban environments requires more individualistic and materialistic values; such adaptation prioritizes choice, personal possessions, and child-centered socialization in order to foster the development of psychological mindedness and the unique self."[5]

Says Greenfield, "The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, high-tech society."[7] Greenfield's theory is that obligation and respect for authority are better for a person's interests in rural environments, whereas individualism and materialism work best in cities.[8] Greenfield's study looked at about 1.5 million English-language books published between 1800 and 2000, about 1,160,000 of which were published in the United States.[6-7]

Greenfield found the anticipated decline and rise in the use of certain words, but with a few exceptions; for example, the use of the word, "get," declined between 1940 and the 1960s before rising again in the 1970s. This seems to define a decline in self-interest caused by World War II and the US civil rights movement.[6-7] Notes Greenfield,
“The Google Ngram Viewer is a revolutionary tool in that it counts word frequencies in a million books in less than a second. Not only that, it's a publicly accessible tool. Anyone can go to the Google Ngram website and replicate all of my results!”[6]
As an illustration of this easy reproducibility, I present my own Ngram graphs for the words, give, get, obliged, choose, obedience and individual. My raw data is available as a CSV file, here.

Figure caption

Frequency of use as a percentage of all words for give and get. (Data from Google Ngram Viewer, plotted using Gnumeric.)

Figure caption

Frequency of use as a percentage of all words for obliged. (Data from Google Ngram Viewer, plotted using Gnumeric.)

Figure caption

Frequency of use as a percentage of all words for choose. (Data from Google Ngram Viewer, plotted using Gnumeric.)

Figure caption

Frequency of use as a percentage of all words for obedience. (Data from Google Ngram Viewer, plotted using Gnumeric.)

Figure caption

Frequency of use as a percentage of all words for individual. (Data from Google Ngram Viewer, plotted using Gnumeric.)

Greenfield plans to examine these same trends using the Ngram Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese databases.[6-7] It will be interesting to see how global the trends are. One word that's had a recent rise in popularity is "feel," which has had an upwards trend only since 1965, as illustrated in my final graph.

Figure caption

Frequency of use as a percentage of all words for feel. (Data from Google Ngram Viewer, plotted using Gnumeric.)


  1. Jean-Baptiste Michel, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden, "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books," Science vol. 331, no. 6014 (January 14, 2011), pp. 176-182.
  2. Steve Bradt, "Oh, the humanity - Harvard, Google researchers use digitized books as a 'cultural genome'," Harvard University News Release, December 16, 2010.
  3. Patricia Cohen, "In 500 Billion Words, New Window on Culture," The New York Times, December 16, 2010.
  4. Erez Lieberman, Jean-Baptiste Michel, Joe Jackson, Tina Tang, and Martin Nowak, "Quantifying the Evolutionary Dynamics of Language," Nature, vol. 449, no. 7163 (October 11, 2007), pp. 713-716.
  5. Patricia M. Greenfield, "The Changing Psychology of Culture From 1800 Through 2000," Psychological Science (To Appear).
  6. Psychological Adaptation to Urbanization, Technology Reflected In Word Usage Over Last Two Centuries, Association for Psychological Science Press Release, August 7, 2013.
  7. Anna Mikulak, "Changes in language and word use reflect our shifting values, UCLA psychologist reports," UCLA Press Release, August 7, 2013.
  8. Tom Jacobs, "'Give' Gives Way as Word Usage Reflects Shift in Values," Pacific Standard, August 7, 2013.

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