I’ve been ignoring the whole minifuror over the recent Atlantic article “The QWERTY Effect: The Keyboards Are Changing Our Language!” by Rebecca J. Rosen, and the paper by Kyle Jasmin and Daniel Casasanto it was based on, because it was (to my mind) so self-evidently silly it didn’t bear thinking about, much less writing about. (The idea, in case you missed the furor, is that, in Rosen’s words, “because of the QWERTY keyboard’s asymmetrical shape …, words dominated by right-side letters ‘acquire more positive valences’ — that is to say, they become more likable.”) Mark Liberman at the Log has been doggedly investigating, giving the idea more benefit of the doubt than I would have (The QWERTY Effect, QWERTY: Failure to replicate) but ending up with the results to be expected, that there’s no there there, and Geoffrey Pullum has (as one would expect) done a bang-up job of summarizing it all with the appropriate mockery at Lingua Franca: The Bad Science Reporting Effect. Here’s an excerpt:
Publicity for the unresult of their paper in Psychonomics Bulletin and Review has garnered them some appallingly stupid press coverage (“The Keyboards Are Changing Our Language!”; “Just Typing ‘LOL’ Makes You Happy”; etc.). The worst I saw was in the Metro, a free tabloid in Britain: “SEX is depressing—but only if you use your left hand,” they began. “Typing letters with your left hand conveys more negative emotions than typing with your right, British and U.S. scientists say.” (The authors say nothing about what “conveys more negative emotions,” of course.) And in conclusion: “despite their meaning, words such as ‘lonely’ cheer us up more than, say, ‘sex’.” (If there was ever a worse example of illicit inference about particular cases from aggregated results, don’t show it to me, I might cry.)
One might argue that the two young psychologists are not responsible for jokey press reports. But they are not blameless. Jasmin told Wired: “Technology changes words, and by association languages. It’s an important thing to look at.” All of this is false. There has been no demonstration that technology “changes words.” If connotative valences of some words did alter slightly for some reason, that wouldn’t change the language at all. And above all, this is not “an important thing to look at”: No scientific importance would attach to a very weak correlation between spelling and affective attitudes toward isolated words, even if there was one.
Follow the link for the URLs I’ve left out of my quote, and of course for more of Geoff’s righteous smiting.