Language of lovers

Posted by on February 16, 2011

Romantic English month brings you a guest post by teacher and blogger Dan Clayton. Dan has taught English Language A level for the past 10 years in south London and is currently working as a Research Fellow at UCL’s Survey of English Usage on the Teaching English Grammar in Schools project. His A level Language blog can be found here.

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“I love you,” she says.
“I love you more,” he replies.
“I love you most,” comes her response.
“I love you the mostest,” he answers, somewhat ungrammatically.

And they carry on like this for a further twenty minutes (with the occasional break for some snogging) as the rest of the people in the train carriage shuffle their newspapers, cough with embarrassment or turn up their mp3 players to drown out the horror of young love.

The language of lovers is something that we’ve probably all experienced or been subjected to at some point in our lives, and it’s a mixture of pet names, hushed tones and – according to new research from the University of Texas – similar words and grammatical patterns.

According to James Pennebaker, Molly Ireland and their team of psychologists, we’re not just likely to match our speech to the one we love, but we’re also more likely to be attracted to people with similar speech styles. In their most recent study they set up speed dates between pairs of students and found when the conversations were analysed, that while the topics discussed were predictably very similar, the grammatical details held small clues as to which couples would hit it off.

Using text analysis, they found that the pairs whose language styles matched most closely were much more likely to express an interest in seeing the other person again. What was also interesting here was that in a second study, which used online chats rather than spoken data, the couples whose speech style matched most closely were more likely to be together after three months than those whose speech styles didn’t.

This isn’t exactly news to linguists: accommodation theory has been around since the early 1970s, championed by Howard Giles. He argued that in many social situations speakers either converge towards or diverge away from another person’s speech style, depending on the relationship they wish to have with them. Those who are favourably disposed towards another person and who want to create a positive impression will converge towards the other’s speech style. Meanwhile, if we are antagonistic towards someone else we may well try to create linguistic distance between us and them by diverging. Giles argued that accommodation could be marked by changes in the accent we use, the body language we adopt, or the actual words we use.

So next time you find a stranger copying your body language, aping your slang or mimicking your accent, don’t take it the wrong way. They’re not mocking you: they love you and probably want to kiss you. Just to be sure that they are the one for you and not some deranged weirdo, you might want to whip out your laptop and quickly get them to submit some data to this website, where you can work out how compatible your language styles are. Then you can either make your excuses and leave or move on to a full, loving relationship.

“You put the phone down.”
“No, go on, you put the phone down.”
“But I don’t want to. I love your voice.”
“I love your voice more.”

Ad nauseam.

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Comments (2)
  • Very entertaining and informative post, Dan. Thank you. The phrase “a meeting of minds” is more meaningful than it might at first seem…

    Posted by Stan on 16th February, 2011
  • Thanks, Stan. When my partner read it, she said it wasn’t true and that we didn’t share a common language at all. Straight after that, she wrote an email to her sister which contained the expression “huzzah” which I know she’s taken from my (rather silly) vocabulary. So, according to my detailed scientific research, it must be true!

    Posted by dan on 16th February, 2011
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