Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan a Linguistic Outlook

Music legend Bob Dylan who influenced the generations of poets, lyricists and singers with his own style of songs and compositions won the Nobel Literature lately. He is the first to receive this honor as a songwriter and poet.

Many journalists, bloggers, researchers, writers, sociologists, socio-psychologists have written many books, research papers and articles on Bob Dylan. I am considering three major writers and their three books to analyze the work of Dylan.

Sean Wilentz   has discovered Bob Dylan’s music for a half a century; being an eminent American historian he analyzed Dylan’s work since 1961. Wilentz finds Dylan’s body of work is unique in America’s cultural history. He captured it in his book.

Seth Rogovoy, an award-winning critic and expert on Jewish music, has wrote a different perspective in his book ’Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet’. He explored and examined and dissected every year to year work analysis Bob Dylan and his  Jewish heritage and the influence of Judaism in his work.

Lee Marshall wrote a new emphasis on Dylan as a rock star in his book ‘ Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star’ Marshall , Wilentz, , Rogovoy, claim his immense impact of his songs on 20th and 21st century culture.

Let us count his 32 studio albums of original lyrics and music except his bootlegs, live songs or live albums as this would have duplicated songs within the corpus. Dylan’s corpus spans 50 years of lyrical material; Dylan’s first album, Bob Dylan, was released in 1962 and the latest album, Tempest, was released in 2012.

Bob Dylan’s lexical density has been thick over the five decades. Lexical density is the ratio of content to function words. It means the usage of nouns, verbs and adjectives in content with the ratio of prepositions, determiners, conjunctions. To talk about Dylan’s vocabulary, he used 98, 299 words and 24, 064 word types (different words) in the Bob Dylan corpus. In linguistics we count the token total for total number of words, and the type total means the total number of different words. Ex. “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? “, there are 14 tokens and 12 types (and man are repeated twice). The type/token ratio decides the lexical diversity of a text, which reflects the amount of unique words used in a text. The Spearman’s correlation test proves the dense and rich Dylan’s vocabulary stood   stable throughout his life.

The American linguist George Zipf’s 1949 law use mathematical statistics for physical and social sciences. When it is applied to Dylan’s work we find the most used word is ‘the’ in first place which is  twice as frequent as the 2nd most frequent word ‘I’The third most frequent word is ‘you’. The research reveals we get very few high frequency words and many low frequency words.

To study the time and tense usage by Bob Dylan, I used the Pennebaker and Stone  a linguistic marker developed by James W. Pennebaker an American social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas Lori D. Stone b a Department of Psychology, The University of Texas. This linguistic marker helped me to find the increasing age of Dylan and change in the frequency of future tense or past tense usage compared to present tense usage. Pennebaker and Stone linguistic marker is the outcome of aggregated the complete works of 10 authors, playwrights and poets – William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. This proved to be most significant tool to find the psychological graph in artist’s work.  In normal case one would expect past tense usage to increase with age. young people are more concerned about the past and that older people’s language use references of future.

            In Dylan’s case there are no statistically significant changes in the usage of past, present or future tense usages used over 50 years time, The total number of past tense occurrences of lexical verbs in the Bob Dylan corpus is 6054, the frequency for present tense lexical verbs is 13264 and the total frequency of future tense occurrences is 1079. The expected frequency for each was 6799.

Bob Dylan does not become increasingly anxious with the future with his increasing age and nor did he refer less to the past with increasing age. We find Dylan is consistent in his reference to events in the past, present or future. Dylan prefers to recount events in the present tense over past and future tense. As writing in the present tense is a powerful literary device he uses and this turns into a song’s timeless quality.

Love is a very popular theme of many songwriters and poets. To study Dylan, I selected all words that are semantically linked to the word love. I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) developed by Professor of (Corpus) Linguistics, Brigham Young University (BYU) .  This theory work on all lemma forms of   synonyms related to love.  We find two important   relationships   between the tense type and the way Dylan likes to interpret love. Firstly we fin negative relationship between the frequency of synonyms of the word love and the proportion of usage of the past tense. If we look through basic statistical model of Spearman’s correlation co-efficient, it shows Dylan refers less to the concept of love, and more to events in the past tense.

On the other hand, we find strong use between the frequency of synonyms of the word love and the proportion of usage of the present tense. In shows Dylan refers to the concept of love, in the present tense. The Spearman’s correlation co-efficient proves the strong relationship between the use of word love and usage in present tense.

Dylan strongly use words like ‘the, I & me’, talks very less about love and past events creates a need to find out his personality trait of Narcissism

I referred three books to understand him from a close quarter.

First book by Pennebaker, J. W., & Stone, L. D. (2003) ‘Words of Wisdom: Language Use Over the Life Span. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’ states the usage of higher singular personal pronoun   correlates with other egocentric personality traits, such as narcissism.

Second book by Raskin, R., & Hall, C. S. (1981) The Narcissistic Personality Inventory: Alternate form reliability and further evidence of construct validity. Journal of Personality Assessment focus on the heavy usage of Ime and my, reflects greater self-focus and alienation from social relationships and communalism.

The third book by Dunlap, J. (2006) ‘Through the eyes of Tom Joad: Patterns of American Idealism, Bob Dylan, and the folk protest movement’ – this book applied the above mentioned dynamics and investigated the changing singular personal pronouns usage across time. They found out the significant increase of first-person singular pronoun and decrease in first-person plural pronoun over time.

Bob Dylan’s self-focus, remains stable throughout his life. Dylan’s work mostly talks about social and political issues. It does not talk about love and day dreaming. Dylan’s themes and usage of tense have surprisingly remained stable throughout his career. This is the unique thing of Bob Dylan.  He is the bard of Modern English, language has been his muse and grammar has been his companion.   He gave many new phrases, metaphors and words to English language.

Do check my next article on his contribution to English language.


Published by Rahul Mate

Passionate about cinema, fine art, literature and photography, while teaching in media school Rahul Mate makes a little change into the life of people by connecting them with world of creative freedom.

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