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David Brooks' Favorite New Theory of Language Is Wrong

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David Brooks has been impressed by a stream of studies purporting to illustrate his ongoing thesis about community breakdown in America. These studies chart changes in word use by English writers over centuries, and their theme is, just as we are what we eat, we are what we say.

This approach to language is fashionable. Who isn’t intrigued by an idea of this school, for example, that the language you grow up with shapes your thoughts, such that French people might process inanimate objects as gendered on some mental level? Brooks says the studies, which show a decline in the use of words like modesty, fortitude, and virtue show that “the atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address.” His attraction to the studies is also due to their scientific wrappings: They use a new tool from Google that charts words’ frequency in over five million books published since 1500. Cool, but the implications these studies draw from the tool runs up against some simple truths about how language works.

For one, over time a language constantly substitutes new words for old concepts. It’s tempting to say, as Pelin and Selin Kesebir do in their study, that the decline in the use of humbleness means that we’re becoming egotists. But how do we square that analysis with the concurrent explosion of down to earth? The more, well, down to earth air of the term hardly renders it irrelevant. If anything, the person who prefers down to earth to humbleness would seem likely to be more humble, not less.

Daniel Klein notes faith is down—but what about that belief is up? Band together may have gotten old—but link up has been in the ascendant since 1870. The list goes on. Kindness is down? But being nice just keeps going up, especially since 1900. Honesty was more likely from people reading by candlelight a hundred years ago? Okay, but telling the truth has been embraced ever more since then.

As many will detect, much of the issue is the increasing informality of writing over the twentieth century. We may be less likely to use the word conscience than we used to, but the Google tool shows that we have become increasingly fond of the expression eats at you, which has taken off since the fifties as so many of the other terms have faded.

The vocabulary changes are less a matter of psychological revolution than they are of people becoming less uptight. Indeed, today’s educated person is unlikely to write of virtue, but referring to someone as a stand-up guy has become quite fashionable—as has calling someone cool, which overlaps considerably with what was once called virtue. We may sense appreciation as having an antimacassar thank-you-note air to it, but giving back has done just fine, and even risen in usage rate, since 1800.

It is also relevant that a language can express a concept from various angles, positively or negatively, or with a noun or a verb. For example, a journalist once marveled that an obscure language of India has a verb referring to how a baby is fat and treats this as evidence of a unique “way of seeing the world”—neglecting that our term baby fat refers to exactly the same concept, just with a different part of speech.

In the same way, if Americans use the word decency less than before, since the sixties we have marked our awareness of exactly that concept with none other than asshole. As Geoff Nunberg’s clever book taught us last year, the word refers precisely to someone who transgresses rules in cognizance of doing so, such as cutting people off in traffic. The asshole transgresses decency, in which we are interested as the Victorians. We just happen to refer to it with a noun, and a negative one, and also with a certain pungency, because the sixties happened and changed how we process profanity.

The same problems bedevil the claim that we moderns reveal our essence in words we use more rather than less. Jean Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Brittany Gentile note that personalized and unique are up. Yes, but they replace words that once covered the same ground. Made to order has plummeted since the forties as personalized became more au courant, while unique picked up the ball from once-popular singular and ran with it. Discipline and dependability are up, and reveal us as focused on economic production and exchange? Dramatic notion, but what about how people a century ago were using steadfast even more than we use dependable now?

It’s hardly that the thesis that Americans think differently than they did a hundred years ago is mistaken—what would be unusual is if Americans did not. For example, it certainly means something that I come first is now a set phrase, of a kind that it is difficult to imagine a gaslight-era equivalent for.

However, the faddish attempt to apply the Big Data approach to social psychology via Google’s Ngram viewer tool will shed much less light on these matters than many expect. In any language, concepts are expressed by several words and phrases at any given time, all of which morph eternally with the passage of time.

One more for the road. Spendthrift has been used ever less since 1900. Chalk it up those looking for societal correlations that spendthrift did have a spike during the Depression. However, this was within an overall trend of decline—and who would go from that to a claim that today’s Americans are more frugal? Rather, we’re more likely to use throw money away—a verbal expression, and an informal one, but with the same meaning. With language, much more often than we often might suppose, the most useful motto is Plus ça change.