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Analyzing language

There were a couple mentionable articles on analyzing language from this past week.

One was in the Economist. "The elements of style" discusses how the language a passage (or string of text) is written in can be uniquely identified by how well a given compression algorithm compresses that passage. Furthermore, this technique can be used to accurately map out how similar various languages are to each other. It's not a stunning or even especially surprising result (I think), but hopefully a useful one, which could conceivably tell us how closely related other, non-linguistic strings of data are to each other.

Another article, from Tuesday's New York Times (making it the fourth from that edition that I've discussed here), examines how Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's manner of speaking changed over the course of his eight years in office, and compares it to the change in public perception of him.

The article reports on a study that found that "Giuliani's language became simpler, more straightforward, more personal and more cognitively complex — as evidenced by an increase in words reflecting insight and self-reflection — during the two most stressful periods of his mayoral career." This, they suggest, coincided with a more human perception of Giuliani, as he faced his personal struggles.

Well, who knows which comes first. Perhaps there's a genuine correlation, or perhaps we simply interpret a man's words and actions more generously when we believe he is stressed. The article, alas, deigns not to tell us if anyone has studied that question.

It was also amusing (or not, depending on how you look at it), to see how the article notes that "only the mayor's spontaneous responses to reporters' questions — as opposed to scripted statements — were included in the study" exactly three paragraphs before, in tackling the question of whether the early Giuliani and the later Giuliani were "the same person" (and I'm not even going to think about that one), it quotes one of the study's authors as saying, "How we use words is shockingly consistent over our lives. So, for example, the way Shakespeare used pronouns in his plays was quite consistent." No doubt they only studied his unscripted plays. I guess.

February 16, 2002 1:54 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

Matt -- It's actually quite understandable that only "spontaneous" answers were included in the study, and not scripted statements. Most people who are highly visible in a "political" environment -- including many CEOs, attorneys, athletes, etc. -- pay a lot of money to other people to script their speeches and "published comments". The speakers, of course, have final editorial authority, but by this point in their careers they have usually learned to delegate much authority to the "experts". Typically, the speaker tries to impose their own "voice" onto the script, a frequently ridiculous if not implicitly impossible exercize (even in the Bible, the "word" came before the voice).

Responses to questions also are highly prepared for, in terms of experts anticipating "lines of questioning" and even sometimes specific questions -- however, answers are hard to script because any question may be phrased in the questioner's own quirky fashion, and a pre-packaged answer will ring inattentive, disrespectful or, at the very least, awkward. Usually, the best you can do is anticipate some "key points" you want to get across if a question raises the issue or opens up the opportunity.

Presidential debates, for example, follow much the same line, and most post-debate analysis of "character" focuses on the unscripted discussion in repsonse to questions.

What is perhaps more interesting, in your cited case, is that the public has apparently become sophisticated enough about the distinction between "scripted" and "response in person" that only the latter seems to have a correlation with people's "feelings" toward Giuliani (at least in the eyes of the author).

Posted by Les on February 19, 2002 5:06 PM

Les -- I'm with you. I just thought it was pretty funny how, in practically the same breath in which they suggest that the unscriptedness of Giuliani's comments was significant (for the reasons you point out), they also talk about how you can supposedly do the same thing with Shakespeare.

Posted by M on February 19, 2002 7:14 PM

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