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American books have become more ’emotional’ than British ones, study finds

English-language books released between 1900 and 2008 were searched for “mood” words in six categories: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise.

Has contemporary American fiction become too moody?

Do modern American authors, such as Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan, use more emotional language than their British counterparts, such as Julian Barnes and Hilary Mantel?

Apparently so, at least during recent decades, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One.

The study found that although the use of “mood” words — ones carrying emotional content — in English-language books generally decreased during the 20th century, American authors have tended to use them significantly more frequently since 1960 than their British counterparts.

The study also made the intriguing finding that the frequency of “happy” and “sad” mood words in books on both sides of the Atlantic corresponds with specific periods in 20th century history, such as the Roaring Twenties and World War II.

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“We don’t know exactly what happened in the Sixties but our results show that this is the precise moment in which literary American and British English started to diverge,” said study co-author and University of Bristol anthropologist Alex Bentley, in a prepared statement. “We can only speculate whether this was connected, for example, to the baby-boom or to the rising of counterculture.”

“In the USA, baby boomers grew up in the greatest period of economic prosperity of the century,” he added, “whereas the British baby boomers grew up in a post-war recovery period so perhaps ’emotionalism’ was a luxury of economic growth.”

‘Sad’ and ‘happy’ peaks

For the study, Bentley and his colleagues used Google’s Ngram database, which contains the content of about 4 percent of all books published. They searched English-language books released between 1900 and 2008 for “mood” words in six categories: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. (Other research has shown that short-term changes in the Twitter frequencies of these types of words can be used to identify real-world socio-political events, such as major natural disasters and the unexpected deaths of popular celebrities.)

After analyzing the Google data, the researchers turned up several surprising findings. First, they found that the frequency of “joy” and “sadness” words corresponded with particular historical periods. There were peaks of “happy” words in the 1920s and 1960s, for example, and a peak of “sad” words during World War II (but none during World War I).

The data also revealed a long “sad” period that began in the 1970s, but had appeared to begin to reverse itself by 2008, right before the financial crisis (and the last year of data used for this study).

Overall, however, the study found a clear and significant decrease in the use of mood words throughout the 20th-century, even after the researchers controlled for the increase in technically and scientifically oriented books.

Interestingly, the category of emotion-laden words that decreased the most was “disgust.” One category of words, however, increased: “fear.” Fearful language became especially marked after the 1970s.

Breaking away from the Brits

Although the use of mood words has declined overall in English-language books over the past century, the researchers found that, beginning around 1960, emotional language became much more prevalent in American books than in British ones. That divergence picked up even more steam after 1980.

“This relative increase of American mood word use roughly coincides,” observe Bentley and his co-authors in the study, “with the increase of anti-social and narcissistic sentiments in U.S. popular song lyrics from 1980 to 2007, as evidenced by steady increases in angry/antisocial lyrics and in the percentage of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, mine), with a corresponding decrease in words indicating social interactions (e.g., mate, talk, child) over the same 27-year period.”

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Last year, Bentley and his co-authors also point out, another team of researchers found that the frequency of “individualist” words and phrases such as independent, unique, individual, self and all about me, and I get what I want) had significantly increased in American books between 1960 and 2008, while “communal” words (team, village, union, group) did not.

PLOS One is an open-access journal, so you can read the study in full on the publication’s website.