First Person article for the Oxford Times by Alastair Hussain, Senior Writer and Analyst at Verbal Identity

Have you ever wondered about the relationship between language, thought and behavior? I have. In fact, I do most days. Fortunately, I get paid for it.

So, what’s it to you? Well, lift your head and look around right now. What’s everyone doing? Reading or writing? Speaking or listening? Or, perhaps, they’re just thinking. Whatever it is, they’re using language.

Language is something that comes so naturally to us – something we compute with so little effort, that we take it for granted. But if you think that you’ve got this language thing figured out, take a walk through Oxford, and you’ll meet some buildings that disagree.

Start on Walton Street, pass Oxford University Press on your right and cut down St. Giles and Broad Street to the Radcliffe Camera and the other Bodleian buildings – they’re all stone and glass monuments to the power of words. It’s almost as though the words within could be dangerous, and you need heavy masonry to keep them from flying off the pages.

As you stroll down St. Giles, peek through the pub windows at the smoke-filled stories of literary greats. See them sat around tables in the corners of pubs, transmuting crackpot ideas into made-up languages and best-selling books.

Smaller stories abound, too. Just down the road from where I work, almost 150 years ago, a white-bearded man named James Murray grabbed a scrap of paper and a pen, and started on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It took a little longer to complete than he had hoped – about 60 years – and, sadly, longer than he lived, but once it was finished, his editorial team had managed to capture over 400,000 words.

So, everywhere you look, the history of Oxford is littered with linguistics – the study of language. Which brings me back to the present day. I’m a linguist, but I don’t just study language. I help people, brands and companies use it more effectively for a business called Verbal Identity.

Companies use language internally, operationally and externally. So, when they have better control of their language, they can clarify their thinking. That helps all employees, from the CEO to the shop floor, make good decisions more quickly. It also means they spend less time unravelling tangled chains of thoughts in convoluted email threads. A better awareness of how language works also helps them to be more persuasive in a pitch, or to make better use of a billboard ad or a digital banner.

We also use text analytics to help companies hear what their customers are saying. Imagine 100,000 people all talking to you at once. That’s what modern companies have to deal with. It’s big, loud, noisy data. In fact, it’s too big, too loud and too noisy for human beings to deal with, so we use software to help us filter it.

In the past 18 months, we’ve helped a global gym chain, a big UK supermarket, a couple of online retailers and a national property developer make sense of all the customer comments they had lying around, previously unused and indigestible. It’s amazing what you can do when you combine raw computing power with the subtlety of linguistics.

We call it the magic and mechanics of language. We base our work in scientific understanding, but we know that the most potent writing and insights often involve a creative leap.