No rocket science is needed to notice the rise in political dissent and social unrest in Singapore over the past few years. But a study of the language usage trends by Singaporean bloggers might shine some light on some of the why’s and when’s of this phenomenon, as well as expose the 911-scale impact of the commotion surrounding the population White Paper on the collective Singaporean psyche.
Not unlike overhearing the screams and squeals from violently quarreling neighbours, observing the Singaporean blogosphere overseas over the past few years has mostly been rather worry-inducing. And I do not just speak for myself; most overseas Singaporeans have never felt so much negativity emitting from our homeland. But is there perhaps a way to measure the unrest and discontent in a tangible, quantitative manner?
Recently, I chanced upon a few fascinating psycholinguistic research articles on the correlations between pronoun usage and the mental state of the writer/speaker. This prompted me to try out some of those theories on the Singaporean context. The results of these experiment are presented in this blog post.
Several psycholinguists around the world, including Jean M. Twenge from San Diego State University and James Pennebaker of University of Texas, Austin, described correlations between the usage of pronouns and the psychological state of the writer/speaker.
In his book ‘The Secret Life of Pronouns‘, James Pennebaker explained that the usage of first person pronouns (such as ‘I’ and ‘me’) indicate self-attention. According to him, self-attention is, among other reasons, mostly experienced when the speaker feels “subordinate to more powerful others”. He found a positive correlation between the use of first person singular pronouns (such as ‘I’ and ‘Me’ ) and the writer’s sense of insecurity, self-focus and level of depression.
Notably, he discovered that suicidal poets of the past steadily increased their frequency of usage of the word ‘I’ in their poems up till the day of their death. Likewise, mental health patients who are successfully recovering from depression have been noted to gradually decrease their usage of first person pronouns in their diaries. On the other hand, usage of first person plural pronouns such as ‘We’ and ‘Us’ have been correlated with higher self-confidence and a sense of security.
But the usage of ‘I’ could also means something more: a change of focus from the self to the collective. Consider the example to the right (Figure 1), taken from James Pennebaker’s book ‘The Secret Life of Pronouns‘ about the usage of pronouns during the 911 attacks in the United States. In this case, there was a collective sadness and empathy immediately after the incident. But collective sadness, as James Pennebaker claims, does not necessarily translate to depression and insecurity. In this case, it represented just the opposite, for American bloggers turned their attention away from themselves (decreased ‘I’ usage) and to the public sphere (increased ‘We’ usage), giving rise to then historic levels of nationalism and patriotism.
Pronouns-ing Singapore: the results
To keep the analysis manageable on my humble laptop, I focused on just a small part of James Pennebaker’s ideas, analysing just four basic pronouns: ‘We’, ‘Us’, ‘I’ and ‘Me’. Singapore Daily’s well archived websites provide a great source of WordPress blogs for me to extract and parse for this analysis, allowing me to get a glimpse of the blogging scene all the way back to 2007.
Beforehand, I expected the data to show a clear inverse relation between ‘I’ and ‘We, with ‘I’ usage clearly rising and ‘We’ usage falling, reflecting the increasingly negative social climate in recent years. ‘Me’ and ‘Us’ were also expected to show a similar inverse relationship.
But like all experiments, the results turned out to be less straight-forward than I had hoped for. Click on the images below to view the graphical results of the analysis.
Two clear observations can be made from this series of graphs:
- The usage of I-words has roughly doubled since end of 2007 till the start of 2013; statistically a very significant amount.
- There is a huge dip-and-rebound in usage of all four pronouns at the start of 2013, coinciding with the Punggol by-election and the subsequent release of the population White Paper. ‘I’ usage showed the most drastic changes during that short period.
Besides that, the usage of ‘We’ increased slightly over the years, albeit with a lot of turbulence due to various social and political occurrences. No significant changes can be seen in the usage of ‘Us’ and ‘Me’ over the five years.
The earthworms surface And The chickens don’t lay
The possible ways to interpret this data are numerous. Could the strong increase of the usage of I-words be a reflection of the gradual growth in feelings of helplessness, insecurity and discontent in Singaporean society over the past five years? Is the slight overall increase in ‘We’ usage an indication of increased nationalism and political participation offsetting the feelings of helplessness and insecurity?
Most strikingly, the abruptness of the dip-and-rebound in the graph at the start of 2013 approaches that observed after the 911-attacks in the United States (Figure 1). In this case, it’s not clear why all four pronouns dipped drastically in usage at the same time at that point (perhaps people are skipping the pronouns and going straight for the expletives?). But could the unprecedented dip-and-rebound in pronoun use indicate the extent to which the population White Paper qualifies as the most unsettling socio-political event in recent Singaporean history?
What’s your take on this?
Shortfalls and recommendations
It must be remembered that data is not an unbiased sample of the Singaporean blogosphere. They only represent blogs hosted on WordPress.com which were posted on Singapore Daily. And of course, correlation does not imply causation, and data can be interpreted in many ways.
I suggest readers doubtful about the validity of pronouns analysis to take a look at the works of James Pennebaker and Jean M. Twenge to get an idea of the rationale behind these theories. Suggestions on the shortfalls of this analysis or recommendations for further reading are more than welcome!
I shall leave you with a final gallery summarizing all the graphs in this study, as well as a graph showing the trends in average wordcount per blogpost.
Analysis was done using Google Refine, Excel, MATLAB and a bit of Jython. Many thanks to my friend Alexandro Mancusi for teaching me the basics skills needed for this experiment. Credits to the staff at Singapore Daily for assembling the blog entries over the past years, organising them in an easy-to-parse manner, and not blocking my IP address when I was scraping their webpages en masse!