Monday, August 1, 2016

The Words of Metal

I recently came across this interesting study at Degenerate State, a blog run by "an ex-physicist working as a data scientist".

The author reports on an informal analysis of word use in heavy metal lyrics as opposed to the "standard" American English represented by the Brown corpus, a collection of documents compiled by linguists in 1961. He defines a measure for the "metalness" of a word as the logarithm of the ratio of the frequencies of the word in the respective corpora. Basically, the more times a word appears in the metal corpus, and fewer times it appears in the Brown corpus, the greater its metalness will be. Each word has to appear at least five times in the respective corpora in order to be included in the study.

The most metal word is, apparently, burn, which has a metalness of 3.81; the least metal word is particularly, which has a metalness of -6.47. The top twenty most metal words are: burn, cries, veins, eternity, breathe, beast, gonna, demons, ashes, soul, sorrow, sword, goodbye, dreams, gods, pray, reign, tear, flames, and scream. The top twenty least metal words are: particularly, indicated, secretary, committee... Ugh, let's just stop there. This news story on the analysis puts it this way:
What you can infer from this is that the metal English is spoken from a timeless, elemental, and darkly ethereal space, while standard English is unremarkably deskbound. Perhaps this is why we hunger for metal in the first place.
Now, look at some of those metal words. Burn. Veins. Eternity. Beast. Demons. Ashes. Sword. Gods. Flames. Reads like a good old Robert E. Howard story. Which goes to show you what we already knew: metal loves sword-and-sorcery, weird horror, and even epic fantasy.

I'm not exactly what you'd call a metalhead. I'm not regular about listening to music of any sort, and rarely leave the mainstream. But I can say that I'd rather listen to certain brands of metal (the red part on the right of this cluster dendrogram, to be specific) than pretty much anything else, with Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam" at the dead center.

What I most like about Metallica is the way it sounds (duh), but I'm also drawn by the lyrics, which have a kind of dark, quasi-biblical, historical-mythological resonance, with occasional touches of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Their best songs inhabit this dark desert landscape in my mind, imbued with a certain atmosphere that I can't quite describe but have tried introduce here and there in my writing.

Since I'm about to release my novel The King of Nightspore's Crown, it occurred to me to see how metal it is. Turns out it's pretty metal. In my highly unscientific count, I find that burn (or close variants, which, I know, is not quite fair) appears 28 times; cries (and variants), 98; beast, 67; demon (or daemon, rather), 22; sword, 90; dream, 51; scream, 25, etc. Each of the top twenty words appears at least several times, with the exception of gonna, which I don't use when translating from the nephelic tongue, for a total of 430 occurrences. By contrast, only five of the bottom twenty words appear, with 13 occurrences in all, and several of these in tongue-in-cheek dialogue.

This graph plots the metalness of all 10,000 words used in the study against their word length, with the horizontal axis representing metalness and the vertical representing length. I note that my stories (which tend to feature lone warriors pitted against primeval beasts, ancient aliens, and elder evil) are situated in the bottom right-hand corner, while my work e-mails (which deal with academic advising, faculty governance, and program assessment) inhabit the upper left-hand corner. And, certainly, my writing does take place in a "timeless, elemental, and darkly ethereal space," while my work life, it must be confessed, is "unremarkably deskbound".

Talk about your double lives. Sure, some might deride S&S (and metal) as puerile escapism. But who's to say which of these two lives is the real one, eh? Maybe I just keep my staid day job so that I can escape from the "timeless, elemental, and darkly ethereal space" of my burning dreams of gods and demons.

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