I’ve noted before that cuneiform writing sometimes influenced, in surprising ways, how ancient scholars saw meaning in their language. But does our use of a QWERTY keyboard also subtly influence the way we see meaning in our language? Kyle Jasmin, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London, UK, and Daniel Casasanto, of the Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, think it does and they have supporting experimental evidence.
Jasmin and Casasanto just published an abnormally interesting report in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. It’s open access. Here’s the abstract:
The QWERTY keyboard mediates communication for millions of language users. Here, we investigated whether differences in the way words are typed correspond to differences in their meanings. Some words are spelled with more letters on the right side of the keyboard and others with more letters on the left. In three experiments, we tested whether asymmetries in the way people interact with keys on the right and left of the keyboard influence their evaluations of the emotional valence of the words. We found the predicted relationship between emotional valence and QWERTY key position across three languages (English, Spanish, and Dutch). Words with more right-side letters were rated as more positive in valence, on average, than words with more left-side letters: the QWERTY effect. This effect was strongest in new words coined after QWERTY was invented and was also found in pseudowords. Although these data are correlational, the discovery of a similar pattern across languages, which was strongest in neologisms, suggests that the QWERTY keyboard is shaping the meanings of words as people filter language through their fingers. Widespread typing introduces a new mechanism by which semantic changes in language can arise.
And here’s the last paragraph of their conclusion:
The meanings of words in English, Dutch, and Spanish are related to the way people type them on the QWERTY keyboard. Words with more right-side letters are rated as more positive in emotional valence than are words with more leftside letters. The finding of the QWERTYeffect in neologisms, and even in pseudowords, suggests that new coinages in language may show effects of how they are typed immediately. People responsible for naming new products, brands, and companies might do well to consider the potential advantages of consulting their keyboards and choosing the “right” name.
Give Jasmin and Casasanto’s paper a read. I’m not really qualified to offer a critique of their work. But their paper does raise abnormally interesting questions about the influence of quite subtle culture phenomena on how we understand our world and our language. It also raises questions about how such phenomena interact with each other.
Update: March 13:
Mark Liberman, who is qualified to critique this study, has a couple of things to say about this study on Language Log. Bottom line, the results are not statistically significant.
Via Scientific American