Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

Stylometry and Characterisation in the Big Bang theory/Stilometrie En Karakterisering in the Big Bang Theory

Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

Stylometry and Characterisation in the Big Bang theory/Stilometrie En Karakterisering in the Big Bang Theory

Article excerpt


Co-authored by over 20 writers, the popular American comedy series The Big Bang Theory (Lorre & Prady 2007-present) has delivered interesting and, more importantly, rather stable character constructs, which is specifically reflected in the linguistic constructions of the main characters, especially that of Sheldon Cooper. Though the series has attracted the attention of research relating to semiotics and discourse analysis (Balirano 2013; Bednarek 2012; Ma & Jiang 2013; Shuqin 2012, 2013; Yin & Yun 2012), the construction of a character's particular idiolect also makes an important contribution to characterisation. The way in which a character speaks (the linguistic choices that the writers make on behalf of the characters, as it were) can serve to associate the character with a specific stereotype, subculture or social group, but also personal affect (Culpeper 2001:190). Social and cognitive theories within psychology and language may therefore serve as a general backdrop to the character of Sheldon, and the emergent linguistic features may readily be associated with his world view.

The series introduces four male characters (Sheldon, Leonard, Rajesh and Howard), all scientists who share a passionate interest in comic books and science fiction. Despite the fact that they largely share a social and professional environment and all belong to the scientist/nerd stereotype to varying degrees, it is evident to most viewers that Sheldon Cooper greatly differs socially from his friends. In addition, Penny is introduced as Sheldon and Leonard's neighbour. She portrays the pretty blonde stereotype and stands in contrast to the male characters on a social and intellectual level.

Sheldon is the most peculiar of the five main characters in terms of his overall social behaviour but is also the most intelligent in terms of academic qualities and achievements. Besides his social stereotype as 'geek', he is portrayed as condescending, pedantic, egotistic and self-righteous. He often experiences difficulty with interpersonal communication (Yin & Yun 2012:1222) and is unable to disambiguate between the literal and the figurative. These traits may fit better into a cognitive or personal affect construct rather than a stereotype. In relation to his co-characters, Sheldon is rather unique and this is displayed not only in his onscreen behaviour, but also in his linguistic repertoire. An analysis of Sheldon's speech repertoire is a way of providing linguistic evidence for these intuitive observations regarding his character.

This study aims to establish whether and how Sheldon differs linguistically from his co-characters. It explores the linguistic choices of Sheldon Cooper that set him apart from the other main characters, focusing on lexis and voice. This analysis serves as an example of how idiolect can be constructed and maintained over multiple seasons of a television series with multiple writers. A stylometric analysis of the speech of each of the five main characters (Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Rajesh and Penny) was conducted using the R script Stylo (0.6.0) (Eder & Rybicki 2011) to first establish whether there are significant quantifiable differences in the speech of the main characters. As expected, the cluster tree analyses show that Sheldon Cooper has a discernible linguistic style that differs from that of the other characters. These results are discussed in the first part of the analysis section. Having stylometrically established that Sheldon's language usage differs from that of the other characters in the series, we can ask which specific aspects of Sheldon's language constitute his idiolect. Sheldon's lexical choices as well as his tendency to use the passive voice are discussed as features that distinguish his linguistic style.

Idiolect: Language and characterisation

Balossi (2014:24) argues that language underlies characterisation in that an individual's feelings, behaviour and cognitive states are represented by and through language. …

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