Psycholinguistics Geekout

Yesterday was an exciting day at the ICN for all sorts of reasons: I visited an MRI scanning suite for the first time, I tried reading some more poems under speech jamming conditions, and the BBC came and did some recordings and interviews with us (more on which anon…)

But even more exciting than all that was a comment Sophie made in passing about something called the MRC psycholinguistic database. This, I’ve discovered, is an absolute goldmine for someone with a fetish for words and is an even greater example of the internet adding to the sum of human knowledge than Lolcats.

Essentially, it’s an online dictionary for researchers who want to create lists of word-stimuli for experiments. It allows you to select from a database of more than 150,000 words, narrowing them down by criteria that are second nature for a psycholinguist but for a writer (or for this one, at least) are excitingly new ways of choosing vocabulary.

You can select words by their standardised scores on familiarity, concreteness, meaningfulness, age of acquisition and a host of other measures. You can filter the word sets by part of speech, irregular pluralisation or contextual status (Specialised, Archaic, Dialect, Nonsense, Rhetorical, Erroneous, Obsolete, Colloquial…) And once you’ve chosen your criteria, the output is presented to you in a beautifully stripped back aesthetic:

This delightful list (ETHER – GAUNTLET – LANCER – LICHEN – LYRE – RAMROD – WHALEBONE – WICKET if you can’t read it above) was produced by specifying words between 2-5 syllables, with a concreteness rating of greater than 500 out of 700 and a meaningfulness rating (Colorado norms) of less than 300 out of 700, and then filtering for nouns.

So how could sets like this be useful for poetry? The raw output could be used to create list poems, but the database could also be used to create differentiated vocabulary pools. Limiting your choice of words like this would, for a start, allow you to create a series of variations on a particular theme, in the manner of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. I’m sure it could be taken further than this though – constraint-based writing is more satisfying, for me, when it’s a means to get somewhere rather than an end.

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