College of Liberal Arts

Using Function Words to Read Minds: An LSA Public Lecture

Mon, Dec 19, 2016
The LSA will host four public lectures beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday, January 8.
The LSA will host four public lectures beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday, January 8.

University of Texas at Austin psychology professor James Pennebaker can read minds; but he’s not a psychic, he’s a scientist who researchers what our words say about us.

“It’s easy to control what we talk about, but not how we talk about it,” says Pennebaker, the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology. His cross-disciplinary research on language will be the focus of one of the first public lectures hosted by the Linguistics Society of America from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on January 8 at the J.W. Marriott in Austin.

Developed first in the 1990’s by Pennebaker, the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) program is a computerized text analysis with the potential to reveal a person’s underlying emotions, thinking styles and social concerns based on the way he or she speaks and writes. The most important words, Pennebaker says, are function words — small words, such as pronouns or prepositions — which make up nearly two thirds of what people say, hear, read and write.

“These and other dimensions of language have really provided some intriguing insights into the way people think,” Pennebaker says. “But these methods are also really powerful for analyzing yourself to get a better sense of: Who are you? How do you come across? How do you think? To what degree does your language reflect certain aspects of who you are?”

Tickets for the LSA public lectures are available on the Eventbrite website. Other presentations include:

  • “How babies and young children learn language: Why you should talk to your kids,” by Eve V. Clark, the Richard W. Lyman Professor of Humanities and Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University.
  • “Traveling among the new words: lexical adventures in the digital age,” by Ben Zimmer, a linguist, lexicographer and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
  • “Words on the move: Why English won’t – and can’t – stand still (like, literally),” by John McWhorter, an English and comparative literature associate professor at Columbia University.
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