Tuning In to the Language That Shapes Us

Story posted April 12, 2010

isaac-ardis
Isaac Ardis '11

Strange things can happen to your mind when you spend a lot of time slicing and dicing vegetables. Isaac Ardis '11 was working at a restaurant last summer and began noticing how his thoughts were disappearing into the radio, his constant kitchen companion.

Over time, lyric meanings submerged into the overall wash of words. Ardis started noticing the sheer volume and repetition of them: the, it, you, him. He listened more deeply: oooh, jump, yes, seen, yo, bright, remember, girls.

It got him wondering: How much are we affected by the repetition of words we are presented with every day? What can we tell about popular culture at any given moment by its predominant words?

Once back at Bowdoin, he decided to try to get some concrete answers to these questions. Ardis, a German major, embarked on an independent study project to mine text from the lyrics of Billboard's Top 50 songs from 1955 to 2009. He is aggregating the most frequently used words and tracking deviations—sharp spikes or drops in their usage—over the entire span of years.

"Love is definitely in the top ten," notes Ardis. "You, I, the, am, love, her. What's interesting is that the word 'boy' was used more than 'girl.' But it also deviates more than girl."

billboard word graph

To get this data, Ardis is hand-entering the lyrics from each number-one song and feeding them into a word-frequency counting software program. Those statistics get entered into a database that aggregates usage over time, which Ardis can then graph.

So far, he has charted some word frequency spikes that appear directly related to the events or ethos of the times. The word 'war,' for instance, makes its first entrance into the Top 50 during the Vietnam War era. The word 'body' makes an appearance soon thereafter ("Maybe when people were getting more touchy-feely," Ardis adds, smiling.)

Other results are less easily correlated. Ardis recently decided to crunch the total number of words appearing in songs. "By my count," he says, "the number has almost doubled. There were between eight to ten thousand words in the 1960s and about 20,000 words starting in the '90s. I'm not sure what to attribute that to. Perhaps it was the popularization of hip hop. Or maybe songs were more instrumental in the '60s than they are now."

Ardis will explore those kinds of ethnomusicological questions with his faculty advisor, Associate Professor of Music Jim McCalla, once his data set is complete. "Like many students pursing independent studies, Isaac has come in with an open-ended project and has to figure out how to formulate the work even before asking questions," notes McCalla. "He's got rings of data now and he's having to figure out what to do with it, its meanings and themes and the cultural implications of those words. It will be fascinating to work with him on organizing the data to see what conclusions he can come to."

Though it's premature to draw specific conclusion, Ardis seems to have a broad takeaway from the work so far: "It seems clear to me that we are shaped by our vocabularies and our language," he says. "What we're singling along with on the radio, the pop music we're listening to, it affects us.

"But I think it goes both ways. We are affecting the world with the words we choose to use. A popular culture is based on grass roots. It goes from the ground up, but also from the top down to the people."

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