Saturday, July 28, 2007

Watch Your Language

They say smiling is infectious, but yawning is even worse.

Some time ago, I needed some images of people yawning. Googling for pictures I found myself constantly doing it. In fact, as I write this article I find myself yawning again... Look at these:

Are you feeling the urge to yawn too? Quick subject change before we both fall asleep...

Imagine instead a nice, juicy lemon. Imagine biting into its soft, tangy flesh... now my mouth is watering...
Now suddenly, I'm wanting to scratch my head because I'm about to type the word “itch”,...
Sense your body now. Consider this word "itch". Can you feel a vague itch somewhere? Go on, have a quick scratch before reading on.

Some words are so laden with meaning that simply reading or listening to them can have a marked effect on our feelings and behaviour.

Psychologists John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows of New York University conducted an experiment in which one group of students solved a puzzle involving words associated with the elderly. They were exposed to words like “careful”, “wise”, “ancient”, "old", "pensioner", and “retired”. The second group of students solved a puzzle with neutral words, not associated with any single concept. After solving the puzzle the students were free to go.

Unbeknown to the students, Bargh and his colleagues used a hidden stopwatch to time how long it took the students to walk down the corridor to the elevator. Amazingly, students who had been given the elderly related words, took on average over 10% longer to reach the elevator. They had acquired perceived traits of the elderly: slower walking speed.

Can exposure to words affect our moods? Certainly! Here's a list of beautiful words as selected by Robert Beard (AKA Dr Language). Doesn't it feel good just reading them? Wonderful, love, destiny, fantastic, blossom, peace, sunshine, sweetheart, enthusiasm, butterfly, smile,... And if you're seeking amusement, just read this selection from the list of the funniest English words: fuddy-duddy, whippersnapper, pettifogger, hullabaloo, mollycoddle, bamboozle, snollygoster.

What is interesting about language though, is that it contains significantly more negative than positive words. There may be good evolutionary reasons for this. We need to be sensitive to, and to communicate about negative things, because this gives us a survival advantage. This seems to be true across diverse cultures. Studies of 37 different languages reveal basic emotions that have very similar meanings: joy, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, sadness - that's 6 negatives and 1 positive.

If words can affect our feelings, we should be very careful about our exposure to them. Can it be that the negativity of press, radio and TV reports is contributing to the increase of depression in society?

Before you go, consider ways of innoculating yourself against negativity.
How about a dose of synonyms for that wonderful word wonderful?... admirable, amazing, astonishing, astounding, awe-inspiring, awesome, brilliant, cool, divine, enjoyable, excellent, extraordinary, fabulous, fantastic, fine, incredible, magnificent, marvelous, miraculous, outstanding, phenomenal, pleasant, pleasing, prime, remarkable, sensational, staggering, startling, stupendous, super, superb, surprising, terrific, tremendous, wondrous... Mmmm... that's good, I'm feeling better already. You too?

Paul Smith


Paul Smith said...

Apologies to German readers that the article immediately following this contains a negative headline. :)Paul

mistery said...

language, as you say, is interesting. in many cases, language conceals more meaning than it reveals. You may be familiar with Kurt Godel's incompleteness theorem showing how the consistency and truth of a system can only be proven by stepping outside the system. While Godel had arithmetic in mind, to me it's clear that you can only prove the truth ("show the meaning") of language by stepping outside the system into a meta system.

I've added Paul's Notes to my blogrolls at manic memes and pathetic poetry
mumbo jumbo.

Both sites explore the topic of language in quite some detail.

Perhaps you would carry a link to them.


kati said...

heeeeeeeeeeeey. today i've your article the spotlight.. and i love it :D it made me happy :p

love, love, love,

Terena said...

Well written article.