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The language of happiness

Published in The Economist, on Oct 5th 2010, 20:14 by G.L. | NEW YORK

THAT your speech patterns depend on who you're talking to is hardly news, but
James Pennebaker and Molly Ireland at the University of Texas at Austin have
shown that they can be bellwethers of the state of your relationship, and to a
fascinating degree:
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung wrote to each other almost weekly over a seven-year period as
their careers were developing. Using style-matching statistics, Ireland and Pennebaker were
able to chart the two men's tempestuous relationship from their early days of joint
admiration to their final days of mutual contempt (...)

The style-matching approach proved to be a powerful bellwether of marriages as well. Style-


matching scores were calculated between poetry written by two pairs of spouses, Victorian
poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning and 20th century poets Sylvia Plath and Ted
Hughes, which mapped major changes in their relationships (...)

Differences in style matching between the two couples were revealing as well. Even at the
high point of their marriage, Hughes and Plath were less in sync than the historically more
harmonious Brownings were at their lowest point.

Interestingly, the "language style matching" (LSM) that the researchers studied
does not, as one might expect, measure the kind of vocabulary two interlocutors
use (eg, flowery vs coarse), but how similarly they employ "function words", which
"include pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, and a small
group of similar words that have virtually no meaning on their own."

Precisely because they're so common, presumably, these turn out to be a good way
to track variations in style. A drop in the LSM score can mean a relationship is
going down the tubes, though not necessarily; for instance, one year Freud and
Jung's LSM score dropped when they were still on good terms, which the
researchers think may have been because Jung was ill and stressed that year.

But what's truly extraordinary, I think, is the finding that not only letter-writing
between two people is affected, but that even great poets alter their poetry style
depending on how their relationship is going. It also reveals something about the
nature of the relationship: Plath's style, for instance, adapted more to that of
Hughes than his did to hers.

The paper, which the authors have had the goodness to post free online, makes for
fascinating reading, and contains several other interesting findings. Their next
study, which is also posted, is about how LSM can predict the relationship prospects
for couples who meet through speed-dating. I'm never going to be able to talk
without noticing my function words again. The thought is paralysing.
COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS

1. What does LSM stand for and what does it mean?


2. What can LSM reveal about a couple?
3. Is the concept only applicable to marriages?
4. What kind of words are subject to analysis under this theory?
5. Give 2 examples of historical couples where language has revealed some facts about
their relationship
6. Why is this article called The Language of Happiness?
7. Do you think husband and wife merge after many years together?
8. What is your concept of love?
9. Do you believe in marriage as an institution?
10. How have married couples changed recently? Compare the role each partner plays in
marriage today versus your grandparents times