The British use of the English language in literature has become less emotional over the past century, research revealed yesterday.
Academics have analysed how frequently ‘mood’ words were used through time in more than five million digitised books.
They found the use of emotional content steadily decreased throughout the 20th century with a divergence developing between American and British English.
The list of words analysed were split into six categories – anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise.
The same word list was previously applied to a study of UK Twitter content by Dr Vasileios Lampos.
It showed changes in these mood frequencies identified in real world events such as the unexpected deaths of popular personas, public unrest, or natural disasters
Dr Alberto Acerbi, a Newton Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol and lead author of the paper, decided to adopt the same method for literature in the 20th century.
He said: “We thought that it would be interesting to apply the same methodology to different media and, especially, on a larger time scale.
“We were initially surprised to see how well periods of positive and negative moods correlated with historical events.
“The Second World War, for example, is marked by a distinct increase in words related to sadness, and a corresponding decrease in words related to joy.”
The study found emotional content of published English has been steadily decreasing over the past century, with the exception of words associated with fear – an emotion which has resurged over the past decades.
They also found that American English and British English have undergone a distinct stylistic divergence since the 1960s, possibly due to the baby boom and rise of counterculture.
American English has become decidedly more ‘emotional’ than British English in the last half-century.
Professor Alex Bentley said: “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.
“We can only speculate whether this was connected, for example, to the baby-boom or to the rising of counterculture.
“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 expression of emotion in 20th century books’ by A Acerbi, V Lampos, P Garnett and RA Bentley is published in PLOS