“England and America,” wrote the great playwright George Bernard Shaw, “are two countries separated by a common language.” Shaw knew from whence he spoke. The author of Pygmalion (the basis of the musical, My Fair Lady) was Irish. He struggled mightily in his early years as a writer in the London literary scene. It’s clear he spent a lot of time thinking about language, and the ways it reflects and defines who we are.
A new study of British and American literature published in PLoS ONE indicates Shaw was right. What's more, our linguistic differences may reflect basic differences in our cultural behavior in ways that confirm our stereotypes: As writers, the British do, indeed, keep a stiff upper lip; Americans are more “emotional.”
Using the Ngram analytic tool in Google Books, British researchers led by anthropologist Alberto Acerbi, at the University of Bristol, were able to analyze about 4 percent of all English language books published from the beginning of the 20th century though 2008. They looked for terms from six distinct lists, defined by “mood category”: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.
The researchers found that emotional word usage has decreased on both sides of the pond overall, including fiction when studied alone—a phenomenon the authors attribute to “a genuine decrease in the literary expression of emotion.” But since roughly the 1960s, written American English has slowly diverged from the English of our British cousins. Relative to the British, American writing is more emotional now. OMG ALL CAPS!
There’s irony in being “separated by a common language,” of course: The Brits, for starters, think we Yanks don’t understand irony. A recent article in the Guardian relays the complaints of British readers bemoaning the publications use of “ugly and unnecessary Americanisms” like “schlep,” “vacation,” and “upscale.” Even words like “kindergarten,” “upcoming” and “lawmakers” chafe British nerves, just as words like “balding,” “pinpoint,” and “teenager” did in the 1950s.
Some of those differences are directly attributable to America’s immigrant heritage: Words like “kindergarten” and “schlep” are direct foreign appropriations—German and Yiddish, respectively.
But there may be other differences, not so comfortably attributed. The findings match up roughly with a trend noted in a 2011 study, which found that lyrics in American pop music from 1980 to 2007 contained increasingly narcissistic and anti-social lyrics—particularly in the increase of first-person singular pronouns like “I,” “mine,” and “me,” and in the decrease of more social words like “talk,” “child,” and “mate.”
But have Americans really become emotional? Or, to borrow an ancient phrase, are we “putting the cart before the horse”? The British researchers believe the changes in language reflect real behavioral changes at the societal level. Graphing emotional word usage over time, they found that, among Americans and Brits alike, broad changes in literary mood reflected big societal changes like World War II or the Great Depression. See below.
As noted above, both British and American writings have become less emotionally expressive over time. But they also match up in another fascinating way. As the first graphic indicates (above) expressions of fear, in particular, have been creeping back up since the 1970s. Was it the collapse of the utopian ideals of the 1960s that made us start worrying? Tecno-paranoid fears of the atomic bomb—and, later, the singularity? The creep of surveillance societies on both sides of the Atlantic? One can only speculate, but in an age of assassin drones and 3D-printed guns, it doesn’t feel surprising.