Function Word Maps

A while back I posted some cool maps demonstrating lexical differences across the US. Then, I came across some similar maps in Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (review soon). His claim is that by looking at the function words in a text (words like and, I, because) we can learn a lot about the author.

In one study, he analyzed about 37,500 essays written in response to a National Public Radio program called This I Believe. The essays were written by people all over the country, and Pennebaker first found trends in the content of the essays- stories about sports were most common in essays from the Midwest, racial issues from the South, and science from the Northeast. More interestingly, he argues, were the variations in function word use. One finding was that people in the middle of the country used the highest rate of I-words, present-tense verbs, and short words, indicators, he claims, of psychological immediacy, characterized by being “in the here and now.” This is shown by the top map (darker colors indicate higher levels of immediacy).

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 9.50.54 AM

The second finding was that people in the middle of the country tended to use words like conjunctions, negations, and prepositions, at higher rates than people in the rest of the country, which reflects analytic thinking and making distinctions between ideas. Again, darker colors show higher usage of the function words that reflect making distinctions.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 9.50.39 AM

Are these findings meaningful? I’m hesitant in taking this as a suggestion that people in the middle of the country tend to live more in the moment and exercise more analytic thinking in the form of making distinctions, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

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