Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Words as a measure of hope

Here's the talk I gave today at TEDxHumber as scripted. (Of course I deviated in the actual talk, which I'll link to when it goes online).
[Update: the video is here]

Ezra Pound wrote, "A man's hope measures his civilization." But how do you measure hope? Words are part of the conference theme, so I'd like to start with words and then see where that takes us.

A collection of texts, and therefore words, is called a corpus: body. You might have an image of linguists as being scrawny geeks, but we've actually got some of the biggest bodies around. The somewhat sinister sounding Linguistics Data Consortium has Gigaword corpora. That is they've collected texts that altogether run over a billion words in length.

Unfortunately, you've got to pay for access, but a growing number of corpora are available for free through a variety of search tools connected to graphics, just as Hans Rosling called for back in his 2005 TED talk. Mark Davies of Brigham Young University has been leading this charge and just last month released his new query engine for the Google Books corpus.

The Google servers contain what might be the single biggest publicly available collection of words in one place, if we can think of those servers as a place. And one element of this is the Google books corpus, which is especially neat because we can see how the frequency of words changes over time.

This kind of resource is important. Linguists used to go around introspecting and asking each other questions like: "So, Otto, does I wish I was sound grammatical to you or must we say I wish I were?" But now, we can easily look and see what people has been writing. So here's the result of a query of the Google books corpus from 1800 to 2000 comparing I wish I was in blue to I wish I were in red.
You can see that in published books over the last 200 years, both have been common, and we'll take that as evidence that both are grammatical. No need for navel gazing. The other neat thing you see here is this century-long rise, up to a peak in 1900, followed by a long decline. Mark Liberman, linguist at U Penn and founder of Language Log, has wonderfully called this the "great Victorian wistfulness bubble."

But getting back to hope, I thought we'd start by looking for hope there in the Google books corpus, and this is what we find: the frequency of hope in books published between 1800 and 2000.
Doesn't look like a very happy picture does it. The 1830s appear to have been a hopeful time, but there follows a long slow drop. It slides here heading into WWI and then stabilizes for almost 20 years, dropping again in the lead up to WWII. Since then there have been brief plateaus but hope has never recovered. Are we loosing hope?

We may be, but, as the theme of this conference reminds us, there's more than words.

Google “no word for hope” and you’ll find claims that Japanese and Korean, Abenaki and Kickapoo, Ukranian, Portuguese, Tamil, even the Dom language of Papua New Guinea, all lack this word. This is supposed to tell us something about these cultures, signifying, variously, their optimism or pessimism, their stoicism or joy, their wisdom or their folly. The problem is that it’s all nonsense: the self-contradictory interpretations make a mockery of any such argument, and in any case, the languages do not actually want for ways to express hope

I’ve asked speakers of these languages (or people who study them), and it seems clear that they all have ways of saying hope. Sometimes it's a single word, the Japanese 希望 (kibo), or the Ukranian надія (nadiya). Other times, it takes a bit more to say hope. Andrew Pawley, an expert in the language family called Trans New Guinea, told me, "many of the verbal expressions Kalam has for emotions are not single words but fixed phrases. It would be a mistake to equate vocabulary with words."

A mistake indeed, but a common one. What the writers of these blogs, books, and articles that we've Googled up here have in common is a belief in the power of words. Not in the sense of “the pen is mightier than the sword” power of words, but in the sense of that single-word fetish that Pawley warns against. But more than that, these pundits hold the not-so-unusual idea that having a word, a single word as opposed to a phrase, to represent a concept, means that concept is somehow important to that society.

The flip side of this is the notion that any language having no word for a given concept must evince a cultural deficit, a philosophical paucity, a native neglect. An absence, a dearth, a dereliction, a failing, an insufficiency. With all those words for doing without, English must be a meager culture. But then again, we have as many words for plenty, so what does that tell us?

And with all the thousands of words to choose from, our pundits seem to settle on the particular words that fit their just-so stories, oh best beloved. Nothing is made of the fact that English has words for cuticle, semitone, or hook.  Nor does anyone notice that we lack a direct translation for and お湯, Japanese words which mean cold and warm water respectively. My wife, a native speaker of Japanese, finds it amusing when I say 水が熱い, roughly the cold water is hot.

The most famous expression of this meme is the claim that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. Now there are a number of points to address here. First of all, I'm not trying to be offensive. I know that here in Canada, we generally favour Inuit over Eskimo, but Eskimo is a language family that includes more than just Inuktitut, and despite what you've heard, it probably doesn't mean `eater of raw fish'. But more relevant to my talk, there's no evidence that they have any more words for snow than English does.

The facts of the matter, though, as they so often are, seem to be beside the point.
The point is that people don’t care how many words there are for snow. They have an argument, and they want to support it. Counting words can be interesting, but we've got to be careful what conclusions we draw from them.

So, with that warning, coming back to hope, I'll assert that every culture has a way to say it, even if it's not a single word. But how often do they use it? Do we see the same loss of hope around the Babelsphere as we saw in English? Here's the data for the Russian word надежда (nadezhda).

Again, a dramatic drop as we saw in English. Is there a pattern here?  What about the Spanish esperanza?

Still a drop, but not the halving was saw in English or the 70% plummet in Russian. And then there's French espoir:
Nothing interesting here folks, move along, move along. German Hoffnung? Again little change. By the way, I don't speak all these languages, if that wasn't clear from my pronunciation.

So, it's a good thing we didn't stop after three languages. These apparent patterns can be beguiling. I'll throw up one more graph here, the simplified Chinese 希望 (Xwàng):

Now obviously this is some artifact of the data collection. Maybe Google didn't scan many books published before 1920, or they could have their dates wrong, or perhaps this has to do with the timing of the Simplification of the Chinese writing system.

Whatever it is, it's a good thing. It reminds us that these graphs are just shadows, hinting at some idea we've called hope. There are many reasons to mistrust them. And there are many reasons to think that simply counting words might not get you to the truth.

Take the Republicans south of the border. They've got this ongoing meme where they count the first person singular pronouns—I, me, my, etc.—in Barack Obama's speeches, the point being to show how full of himself the first black US president is. Washington Post columnist George Will, for example, counts 70 first person singular pronouns among the 89 sentences spoken by Michelle and Barack Obama in their address to the Olympic committee, promoting Chicago's failed bid.

The problem is that Will offers a count but no comparators. Is that a lot? Mark Liberman decided to find out. He compared the three most recent US presidents' first press conferences and who do you think used the most first person pronouns?

Obama, Bush, Clinton
2.65%, 4.49%, 3.14%
Bush in a knockout.

So comparators are obviously important, but you can't just compare anything willy-nilly. Cosma Shalizi, at the University of Michigan, draws a wonderful analogy to measuring buildings using their shadows. If you measure all the shadows at the same time, you can get a good idea of the relative differences of the building heights, but measuring building shadows over the course of a day or year as the sun shifts around overhead tells you nothing interesting about the changes in the heights of the buildings over time.

This brings me back to the idea of hope and our graphs. What does it really tell us if the frequency of the word hope in English books is declining over time? I don't honestly know, but perhaps a better understanding of the word would help.

Once again we can turn to the corpora. The linguist John Firth once said, "You shall know a word by the company it keeps." What company does hope keep?

The top five verbs coming directly before hope in the Corpus of Current American English are: lose, give, offer, bring, and restore.  Yes, the list starts with lose, so maybe it's a good thing that we don't speak of hope much if all we can talk about is losing it. But when you start digging down into the data, what you find is not just "I've lost hope" but also "don't lose hope," "we will never lose hope," or "we cannot lose hope."

If there is a pattern there, a metaphor, it is that hope is a gift or perhaps a treasure. We use it to bring happiness to others. Hope is fuel. Where we see loss or emptiness, we use hope to restore or replenish. Hope allows us to move on, which touches on another fundamental human metaphor: forward is good.

But practically speaking, going forward is not always good. It also involves barriers, traps, and indeed despair. And in trying to help and bring happiness, we can do a lot of damage. Many a patient has been killed by a well-meaning, but uninformed doctor. And many ecosystems have been destroyed when the gift of a seemingly beneficial species proved ill advised.  Kudzu, a plant in the pea family, was brought to the southern US in the hope of controling soil erosion. It has done so admirably, but has at the same time taken over, smothering everything in its path. A gift is not always a treasure.

So what of hope: good or bad? It's probably linked to happy thoughts, but even here it's not clear that happy thoughts are linked to long-term happiness. Psychologist Dan Gilbert, who has done a lot to advance our understanding of happiness, says that he always connected them, "but we were wrong. People who are `here and now' seem happier than those who aren't." Could it be that hope takes us out of the here and now and thereby makes us less happy?

Finally, there's the possibility that hope might make individuals happier, while at the same times making them complacent and leading to societal decline.

By now you're thinking I'm a worse vacillator than Hamlet. For God's sake, Brett, make up your mind. But that's really the problem. Too often we make up our minds without exploring all facets of the problem.

This can't be said of Humber's own Wendy O'Brien, who has looked a lot at the question of hope. In reminding us of the distinction between hope and optimism, she shows us that optimism may be a happy future feeling, taking us out of the here-and-now, but hope grounds us, compels us to action, to beginnings. This is, she says, why James Orbinski of Medecins sans Frontieres can claim to be hopeful but not optimistic. These are arguments about how people use hope, and what the word means, and, while I find Wendy's arguments compelling, I also think corpus data could be useful in examining them further. There is more to learn about hope.

But as my time is near its end, I would like to leave you with one last graph to consider, for while hope may be one measure of our civilization, surely another is need.

Thank you.

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