Has British Literature Become Less Emotional? Study Says Yes

eng litIn the absence of tumultuous events such as the Second World War, British literature has become less emotional over the last half-century. This is according to a study of over 5million books, representing four per cent of all books ever written, which revealed that during the 20th century the use of emotive words in the English language has declined steadily.

Since the 1960s in particular, British novels have been characterised by emotional restraint, with characters like James Bond, who is notably cold and restrained, capturing the national consciousness. However, across the pond emotional wellness is all the rage, with American writers enjoying a period of relative prosperity, and exploring more sensitive themes like sexuality and civil rights.

The study also found that the nations have been beginning to adopt different literary styles since the 1969s, demonstrating a similar divergence between British and American authors’ use of “content-free” words such as “and”, “but” and “the”. The researchers commented that our use of language appears to be tied to major events, with a spike in words related to sadness during the Second World War period, for example, but it’s still not clear why.

The study, published in the Public Library of Science ONE journal, was led by Dr Alberto Acerbi of Bristol University, who said, ‘This is a somehow stereotyped idea, at least in Europe: “Americans are more emotional”. However our analysis says something more – that there is a precise moment in which this differentiation started to emerge, the 1960s, and this differentiation was part of a more general stylistic change.’

His colleague Prof Alex Bentley, ‘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. In the USA, baby boomers grew up in the greatest period of economic prosperity of the century, whereas the British baby boomers grew up in a post-war recovery period so perhaps ’emotionalism’ was a luxury of economic growth.’

The researchers wrote: ‘These changes in literary mood are seemingly driven by major 20th century phenomena such as World War II, The Great Depression, or the Baby Boom. Our results also support the popular notion that American authors express more emotion than the British. Somewhat surprisingly, this difference has apparently developed only since the 1960s, and as part of a more general stylistic differentiation in American versus British English.’ However, they added, ‘perhaps songs and books may not reflect the real population any more than catwalk models reflect the average body.’

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