Sunday, January 20, 2013

There's a reason Gotye didn't call it "Someone That I Used to Know"

Writing a research paper with the above title = something I have done. Yep. It was for my Advanced English Grammar course...and it was fun. I KNOW. The gist of the paper was that I took a look at what the literature had to say about somebody and someone, and whether there was any consensus on the differences (or lack thereof) between the two. All the big reference grammars (Swan, Quirk, etc.) said there was basically no usage distinction between somebody and someone, and language blogs like Grammar Girl and Language Log tended to agree. "Just use whichever one sounds best to you," they shrugged.

However, one of the basic principles espoused by this course's huge blue grammar book (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman) is that if a language has two forms with the same meaning, there must be a difference in use. Along those lines, I had one rogue source (Bolinger) tell me that somebody and someone are NOT interchangeable, but are used to signify distance/negativity (somebody) or nearness/intimacy/positivity (someone). Consider the sentence, "This present is for someone very dear to me." Could you really substitute somebody for someone there? Bolinger thinks not. I think Gotye (and Adele, as my British professor pointed out) would concur.

So I took a look at the corpus, aka the BYU's own COCA. Corpus research is a way of answering questions about language by looking at what we actually produce - in spoken and written English, in newspapers, morning talk shows, novels, etc. anything. For this small-scale research, I looked at ten occurrences of somebody and ten of someone in the corpus at large, and then analyzed the context (given by the corpus) to see if the word was being used to signify distance/negativity or nearness/intimacy/positivity.

Surprisingly - and I use that word because I think most of us, upon casual reflection, would say that we do use somebody and someone absolutely interchangeably - my investigation of the corpus supported the hypothesis of the rogue grammarian (Bolinger). Ten out of ten of the instances of somebody did in fact indicate distance or negativity. On the someone side, the support was somewhat weaker, with seven out of ten indicating intimacy/positivity.

So there you have it. Whether you were aware of it or not, it is possible - meaning there is evidence in the literature and in my own very small-scale research - that you are using somebody when you are talking about a person in a vague, distant, hypothetical, or negative way; and someone when you are talking about a person who is near to or intimate with you.

What do you think? I know that in the case of song lyrics prosody has as much role as anything else, but what kind of a weird song would "Someone That I Used to Know" be? Or "Somebody Like You"?

16 comments:

Abu Halen said...

I can think of four songs off the top of my head, "Somebody" by both Depeche Mode and Bryan Adams, and "Somebody to Love" by both Queen and Jefferson Airplane, in which it would seem that the use of the word somebody is used to suggest intimacy.

Interestingly, Fountains of Wayne seems to habitually use the term "someone" to suggest distance and a lack of familiarity in their songs "Someone to Love" and "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart." They're from New York. Do you think that means anything?

On the other hand, "Somebody to Shove" by Soul Asylum and "Somebody Told Me" by the Killers use the word to, I think, indicate some type of distance. So did Jackson Browne in "Somebody's Baby" and Chris Isaak in "Somebody's Crying."

So... my 90-seconds of thought yields inconclusive results.

Susanne said...

Interesting. Do you think the same is true of everyone and everybody? Thanks for sharing this stuff with us so we can better know our language. :)

Bridget said...

Awesome. After the fact, I thought that maybe I should have included the song lyric angle in my paper (beyond the cutesy title), but I wasn't sure where I could get a database of every song including "somebody' or "someone". I should have thought of asking you, obviously.

The thing is, though, these songs can't all follow the findings of the corpus because of prosody. That said, I think you could make a case for Depeche Mode's "Somebody" - I didn't go into detail in this post but "hypotheticality" is another aspect of somebody. DM is talking about a nice list of attributes, yes, but they're all attached to a hypothetical girl who may or may not exist. Compare this to Adele, who wants "someone" like YOOOOOUUUUUUUU, specifically.

Bridget said...

That was in the "further research" section of my paper - anyone/anybody, everyone/everybody, no one/nobody, etc. Too bad I already decided on my thesis topic, ha ha.

Scotty P said...

Perhaps, for the same reason, he used somebody 'that' I used to know instead of somebody 'who' I used to know.

kaylee said...

My (then two-year-old)daughter came up with the word 'otherbody' to use instead of 'somebody'. At first I found it a little gruesome to think of people as other bodies. Now she says 'somebuddy' or 'those buddies' and it seems rather more friendly.

AmandaStretch said...

I love this. Hypotheticality also makes senses with the other songs you mentioned in an earlier comment. My current Masters concentration, which is basically musicology, is listed as American Musical Culture, and I bet if I didn't already have a thesis project topic, I could have run with this too! Ooh. Maybe do you want to write a joint paper to publish sometime after we've graduated, drawing on my musical knowledge and your linguistic skills?

Shannon said...

Ohmyheck, Abu Halen is such a music nerd.

Thanks for the enlightenment, Bridget! I'd never really thought about this. But frankly, I don't think it'll change the way I speak or edit--except maybe fore the editing of titles and poetry, where words are so much more valuable than they are in regular prose.

Shannon said...

@Kaylee: Cape Verdian Crioulo does the same kind of thing with their equivalent of "somebody." "Argang" means "sombody", and they shorten this to "gangs" in phrases like "those people" or "those somebodies."

Tia said...

Somebody flows better when singing it. In this song anyway.

Bridget said...

I thought the same. But I also read that we sometimes use 'that' for 'who' so maybe it doesn't really mean anything.

Bridget said...

That's the thing that kind of bothers me about this - if we don't *know* we're doing it, then is it even meaningful? Is it entirely subconscious? Anyone who has read this post has now had that subconscious factor ruined so perhaps we will never know.

Kip said...

Very cool, thank you.

Anonymous said...

An interesting realm for analysis, but I see some problem.

First, what investigation did you make to see if the genesis of the two words (somebody/someone) is explained as a simple matter of history? Do they stem from separate Germanic/Latinate influences, for example, or something similar?

Two, your sample size is way too small. With 10 samples, your margin of error is likely around 30%. Fairly significant, especially given the weak correlation you've found.

Third, your analysis should have been performed double-blind. There's a good chance that you found a "negative" or "positive" connotation in word usage where many people would have found none expressed. There is simply to high a chance that you're results have been clouded by something akin to confirmation bias.

Bridget said...

Yeah, this was a term paper, not a thesis. It was also my first time working with a corpus, so go easy on me.

I did look at the origins of the two words (Biber 1999) and included it as a possible reason for the difference in use.

If I ever extend this research, I will be sure to keep your tips in mind.

Liz Johnson said...

This blog post has been rolling around in my head ever since I read it a couple of days ago. AWESOME.

I think I would agree. Somebody suggests distance, someone is far more intimate. And I love the idea of the joint paper with AmandaStretch. Go for it!

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