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Pronouns In Books Match Gender Status Shifts

Aired 8/13/12 on KPBS News.

Cultural products like books, movies and song lyrics can tell us a lot about society and how it changes over time. KPBS Arts reporter Angela Carone says a new study from San Diego State looks at how books reflect changing gender roles.

A book like "He's Just Not That Into You," silly though it may be, is rich with pronouns. When researchers recently decided to look at pronoun usage in books, I can't help but think this unfortunate cultural phenom spiked the data pool.

In reality, it couldn't have. The study, co-authored by San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge, looked at all the books published in North America between 1900 and 2008. That's a lot of books - roughly 2 million to be exact.

Twenge, and her University of Georgia co-authors, wanted to find out if the use of gendered pronouns like "He/She" or "Him/Her" correlated with shifting trends in gender status. They learned that it did - and quite closely.

When women’s social status was less prominent, like after World War II, fewer female pronouns were used in books.

Twenge says pronoun usage then changed during the late 60s. "Many more female pronouns compared to male pronouns are being used in that time when women are gaining status through participating in the workforce, earning university degrees, and marrying at a later age."

Researchers used the Google Books database, home to 5 million scanned books and one of the largest collection of cultural products assembled.

Twenge says the study applies a cultural lens to show how women’s roles have shifted and progressed.

She adds, however, that there are still twice as many male pronouns compared to female pronouns used in American books.

An additional study was conducted by the same researchers and published simultaneously. It looks at the use of personal and second person pronouns in books since 1960. Here, the numbers are startling. Since 1960, use of first person pronouns like "I" and "Me" increased 42%.

The use of second person pronouns like "You" and "Your" quadrupled and has steadily climbed in usage since the 60s.

"We weren’t able to prove this but my theory is that had to do with the growth of self-help books that use 'You' a lot," says Twenge. "And the idea, which is highly individualistic, that the author is going to speak directly to the reader by using 'You.' Books didn’t use to be written that way and I think it's an interesting indicator of how our culture has shifted.”

Twenge has studied narcissism in contemporary society and authored the 2006 book "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled and More Miserable Than Ever Before." She says the increase of "I" "Me" and "You" seem to point to a culture more focused on the self and personal concerns.

Pronouns are such small words, but they pack a real punch. "The great thing about them in terms of tracing cultural change is that they haven’t really changed since words like 'thee' and 'thou' dropped out of usage in the 1800s," Twenge says. "So we can really rely on them as a way to see cultural change because they still mean the same thing."

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