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Pronoun usage reflects changing gender roles and cultural shifts

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August 22, 2012 12:30 p.m.


Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University; author of “Generation Me” and co-author of “The Narcissism Epidemic.”

Brittany Gentile, researcher and Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia

Related Story: What Pronoun Usage In Books Says About Cultural Shifts


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The pronouns, he, she, him, her, you, me, are among the smallest words in the English language. In the hands of researcher, they can reveal a lot of information. For instance, how much status do women have in society? How much do we value our own experiences? How much do we want to improve our lives? Jean Twenge who's written a number of books on the growth of narcissism in our country is one of the authors of two studies looking at how the use of pronouns changed through the last century. She is a professor of psychology at San Diego state university. Jean, welcome back to the show.

TWENGE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Also joining us is a coauthor and researcher on the pronoun studies, Brittany Gentile, a PhD student at the university of Georgia. Welcome to the show!

GENTILE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Jean, you've been on the show several times talking about your books. But I'm wondering, is this the first time that you've studied anything as seemingly inconsequential as pronouns?

TWENGE: It is the first time. And they seem so inconsequential, but they're not! They say so much about our culture and the language that we use. In generation me and the narcissism epidemic. Some of our research was on the changes in individual, personalities, and attitudes, and behaviors. So my coauthors and I wanted to really look at changes in the whole culture. And pronouns are one way to do. How much do we use I and me versus we and us?

CAVANAUGH: How did you choose which pronouns? Did you look for all of them?

TWENGE: We did. And they're a great resource. And they haven't really changed since thee and thou went out.

CAVANAUGH: Now, where did you look for this whole array, library, of resources for how these pronouns were used?

TWENGE: Well, research on cultural change in books and language used to be very labor intensive. Now we have the Google books database, which is amazing. It's the total corpus is five million books. We looked at American books since 1,900, and it's the full text. And you can search for any book that you want and any phrase up to 5 words. And you can find it by typing engram viewer.

CAVANAUGH: I want to go to Brittany and ask her exactly how she conducted this research. But first Jean, how did you know that -- why did you assume that the pronouns, if they changed, would tell us something about the changing culture? What is that relationship that you were looking for or that you assumed will be there?

TWENGE: Well, from cross-cultural studies, comparing the U.S. versus Korea or China, we know that they tend to use collectivistic pronouns. So we and us more often. And more individualist cultures concentrate on I and me. And then with the gender pronouns, that was a fairly straightforward question there. Obviously if he is being used more often, the focus is more on men. And if she is being used more often, then it's on women. So these very simple words do provide a real look at what we are thinking about and valuing as a culture. At least as it shows up in books.

CAVANAUGH: Okay then. So Brittany, you rolled up your sleeves and you got into the Google books database, how did you go about doing this research?

GENTILE: Well, we got into the Google books database using the engrams viewer. And we get a frequency of certain words in the literature year by year. Then we used statistics to analyze the trends of how certain categories of words were changing over time.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the Google books database, how do you use it? Do you type in a word and see how many times it's used?

GENTILE: Pretty much. We used the engrams viewers, and what it basically returns to you once you type in a word or phrase is the frequency of that word or phrase from the entire Google books corpus, or a subset of it. The frequencies can be broken down by publication year. So then we can compare frequencies across the different years.


GENTILE: And we used this subset of the database that was restricted to American English books. But that still searches well over 1 million books.

CAVANAUGH: Does the information that you receive indicate in any way in which ways these pronouns are being used?

GENTILE: No. The Google books database doesn't really parse things into different types of books. It doesn't really tell you if it's a first person narrative or if it's a novel or things like that. It just gives you the raw frequencies, which is a broad snapshot of word usage in any given year. However, since you asked, you can actually look at just English fiction. But we didn't use that option. We used the American English option.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, jean, why use books instead of maybe movies or pop songs or is it just that the data is is more available from books?

TWENGE: It is. And we have done previous studies looking at things like song lyrics. My coauthor looked at the top 10 Bill board hit, and found we became nor individualistic and narcicisstic over time, and more antisocial words versus prosocial words. We also did another study on baby names, which was fun, finding they became more unique. All of these are all called cultural products, books and song lyrics and names. I would love to do movies and TV shows. Thus far that type of database hasn't become readily available. It would involve a lot of labor intensive coding. And you can do that, but it's awfully hard.

CAVANAUGH: Let's go back to these two studies that you produced now. The first one is about the use of gendered pronoun, he and she. What did that study find?

TWENGE: We did look at all the gendered pronouns. She and her and hers and so on compared to the male pronouns. And our main finding was if you look at the ratio of male-female pronoun, so a bigger number means more, that ratio has dropped like a rock since the late 1960s, which is a pretty clear indicator that women's status was going up at the same time. And we matched that data with the indicators. So say being more educated, women being more likely to get law degrees and college degrees and medical degrees, more women in the workforce, all things that point in the direction of women participating in the public sphere more often. And that maps on very precisely with that pronoun ratio in books. It's a nice indicator of the changes in status.

CAVANAUGH: There has been this push in recent times, let's say, in the last half of the 20th century to not use he to refer to the entire human race, as was common before that time, right?

TWENGE: Sure. I had an English teacher in ninth grade, that was what we were told, that he means everybody. And I remember thinking no it doesn't! And sure enough, that is the viewpoint that became more prominent, that you need to say he or she. In spoken language, it's common for people to say they. In written language, they went down over time. So it doesn't seem to be replaced by they. But that's probably part of the reason we see the ratio changing. But it's also that the use of she and her and so on did go up.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. Brittany, now, as you track this from 1900 through the country, women got the vote in 1920, they were gaining status in the first part of the 20th century. But apparently they took a step back worried after World War II until the feminism of the 60s we were just talking about. Did your data reflect that rise and fall?

GENTILE: It did, for most of what we had expected. It was a little bit surprising in that I think we expected more change between 1900 and World War II. In particular, women were moving into men's roles during the war years. But that's not what we see. We see the ratio of male-female pronouns is pretty stable in that period. And it's only in the postwar years that you see this rise in male pronouns as they came back from the war and took over those roles again. And then starting in the early 1970s, when you get the women's movement in full-swing, then you start to see the increase in female pronouns.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So women might have been more prominent in the early part of the century, but the grammar didn't change.

TWENGE: Or it just wasn't enough of a change. Other studies say women's assertiveness showed an increase at that time, but it didn't seem to show up in the books in that book before World War II. But you do get the step backward, which is interesting.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the second study is about the use of I and you. What did that find out?

TWENGE: With that, we found a really big increase in the use of second person. So you, your, yourself, quadrupled over time. So 300% increase just since 1960. So it's a very big change for a short amount of time. And we also did find an increasing I and me and mine. That went up by about 42%. So those are both indicators of individualism. You know from studies in linguistics and so on that those both -- the you separates the actor from the other, in writing it can indicate talking to the individual reader. Both of those sets of pronouns going up point in that direct of American culture focusing more on the self.

CAVANAUGH: And Brittany, you use the same database in both studies; is that right?

GENTILE: Yes, correct.

CAVANAUGH: All right. So what is your theory about this huge bump in the use of you in the latter part of the 20th century?

TWENGE: I think a good amount of if must be due to self-help books and the type of language that's common in them. So your best life, you deserve the best. If you look at advertising, I'd love to do the study on advertising as well. We weren't able to prove that. So there's other possible theories for why you went up. But I think that's a good possibility.

CAVANAUGH: How do you expect other researchers might use these findings in this study?

TWENGE: Well, I'd hope that it will inspire to continue doing research to cultural products, cross culturally and over time to see how movies and books and television shows show what we value and what we're talking about. It'd be great to see more studies on the Google books database. There's a few more that have started to come out. It's a great resource. And the more we can find out about how American culture has changed, the more we can understand it.

CAVANAUGH: Did these findings tend to support your premise that our culture is becoming more self-obsessed, or are these findings more nuanced?

TWENGE: There's definite support for increasing individualism, in terms of I and me going up, and in terms of you going up. We also did find a small decrease in we and us. They went down by about 10%. I thought it might be more than that. That's a little a little bit of good news. These all point in the direction of greater individualism. I and me go up, there's more debate about exactly what that means, which I think makes it even more interesting. So at least in spoken language and individual language, e-mails versus books, book who use first person singular, I and me, are focused on themselves. But not always in a narcicisstic way. Sometimes they're focused on themselves because they're in physical or emotional pain. So it's almost like a sign of insecurity. Both explanations, that one and the idea of increasing individualism point toward growing self expression. And I think that's a pretty good picture of how American culture has changed. That we've increased in self expression. And whether that's in an insecure way or a narcicisstic way, these data can't completely tell us. But I think that makes it even more interesting.

CAVANAUGH: It does make it more interesting. So it could go either way.

TWENGE: Or both!

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. I'm wondering in closing, Brittany, how long does it take to sift through data like this?

GENTILE: Well, we collected the data for three different studies all at once. So it's kind of hard to parse out one study from another. But between organizing the words and phrases we wanted to search for, compiling the frequencies for each year, and actually doing the analyses, it ended up taking a couple months.

CAVANAUGH: I thought it would be longer than that. Okay. Jean, what is next for you?

TWENGE: I would like to see among individual people the effects of this recession that's still going on. We have the trends toward increasing individualism. And there are some theories to suggest if you get a severe economic recession, you'll get more collectively pushing against it, less focus on the self. Maybe people come together more. A lot of people have been talking about it, and it would be great to address that with some data.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both so much.

TWENGE: Thank you.

GENTILE: Thank you.