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Changes in Language and Words Reveal Shifts in Values

Update Date: Aug 07, 2013 11:34 AM EDT

What separates humans from any other animal is the use of language. Humans are capable of expressing both tangible and abstract thought with one another using different languages and words. Even though humans might share the unique ability to create language, language is still relatively different between cultures. In a new study, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) analyzed the English language over the past centuries in order to understand how language molds and changes according to different periods. They concluded that language and word usage change based on the current values of the time.

For this study, the psychologists looked at the different types of words that were used in over 1.5 million American and British books between 1800 and 2000. According to the head author and distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA, Patricia Greenfield, the shift in words that were used during major historical changes reveals a lot about the values of the society at that time. The researchers noted that one of the changes they noticed was that the words "choose" and "get" progressively showed up more during these two centuries while the words "oblige" and "give" lost popularity. The researchers noted that the word "get" declined in the texts published between 1940 and 1960s before it gained ground again in the 1970s. The researchers believe that during the time of World War II and the Civil Rights Movement, people were less interested in what they got and more interested in others.

"This research shows that there has been a two-century-long historical shift toward individualistic psychological functioning adapted to an urban environment and away from psychological functioning adapted to a rural environment," Greenfield said according to a press release. "The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominately rural, low-tech society to a predominately urban, high-tech society."

Other word shifts that the researchers noted include an increased usage in the word "feel" with a decreased interest in the word, "act." The researchers explained that through time, the individual appeared to become more focused on the self with the words, "child,"  "unique," "individual," and "self" all being used more often than before. With the increased interest regarding the self, there was a decline in words that represented government or religion such as "obedience," "belong," " pray" and "authority."

Greenfield and colleagues were able to monitor these shifts by using Google's Ngram Viewer, which counts word frequencies in less than one second. The types of works the research team looked at ranged from novels to textbooks. Greenfield is now interested in studying language and word shifts for other languages, such as Spanish, French and Chinese.

This study was published in Psychological Science

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