Morbid Curiosity?

I stumbled across something intriguing this morning.  It was of sufficient interest to warrant the further investigation which followed.  My fascination with language and its role in the human condition prompted my search and what, ultimately, might be considered morbid curiosity at its conclusion.

So, here’s what I came across.  First, a Facebook post (I think) led me to a link to a Time Magazine article. A link there led me to an article on Barking Up the Wrong Tree from 2011 that asked whether one’s use of words can give clues of suicidal tendencies and made an undated reference to an article published in Psychological Science Agenda that suggested the answer was “yes.”

From there, I went looking. I found what I believe to be the referenced article, entitled What Our Words Say About Us: Toward a Broader Language Psychology, published in the January/February 2002 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, written by James W. Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

The article describes an investigation into the use of first person singular (“I”) pronouns versus first person plural (“we”) pronouns by poets who committed suicide, versus a control groups of poets who did not (as of a specific date).  In addition, the investigation explored words suggesting social integration versus hopeless and examined those matters in the context of phase of career.  It became more intriguing to me as I read the piece.  I was curious to know the poets in the study.  And so I kept looking. I found a  scholarly article entitled Word Use in the Poetry of Suicidal and Nonsuicidal Poets, by Pennebaker and Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2001. And there I found the list of poets.

The nine poets who committed suicide were:

  • Randall Jarrell
  • John Berryman
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Anne Sexton
  • Adam L. Gordon
  • Sarah Teasdale
  • Hart Crane
  • Sergei Esenin
  • Vladamir Mayakovsky

I knew of some of them and the fact that they committed suicide.  But, reading the articles made me want to read their word again (or for the first time) to determine whether I could detect any signs or signals that might suggest hopelessness or despair.

I was, of course, moved by the personal tragedies of these poets’ suicides.  But I was also intrigued by the methods used in the study.  Of particular interest was reference to a tool called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count.  A bit more internettery revealed this, from the LIWC website:

Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) is a text analysis software program designed by James W. Pennebaker, Roger J. Booth, and Martha E. Francis. LIWC calculates the degree to which people use different categories of words across a wide array of texts, including emails, speeches, poems, or transcribed daily speech. With a click of a button, you can determine the degree any text uses positive or negative emotions, self-references, causal words, and 70 other language dimensions.

Hey, I want that software! So I perused the website further.  For only $29.95 I can get my hands on the “lite” version of the software; for just $60 more, I can get the full-fledged version! Now, am I sufficiently intrigued to spend my own money on it?  I’m not sure just yet.  But it certainly sounds like something I’d spend time with!

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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