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Computer-Aided Study of Literary Language

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000131345D
Original Publication Date: 1978-Aug-01
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Nov-10
Document File: 11 page(s) / 48K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

Donald Ross, Jr.: AUTHOR [+3]

Abstract

[Figure containing following caption omitted: Work in artificial intelligence and the speed and flexibility of electronic storage offer potential solutions to the special problems encountered in describing the language of literature.] Language has proven to be a complicated phenomenon to describe. The language of literature, where the author intentionally labors to make his work unique and interesting, adds special problems of its own. For not much more than a decade, a few dozen literary scholars have explored the extent to which computers could aid in describing poetry and prose, and then could channel the resulting descriptions irate the main current of criticism and explication. It is not surpising that the results so far have failed to produce a uniform methodology, nor has very much literature been treated. Most researchers have had modest budgets, and efforts to organize working centers for exchange of machine-readable texts or software packages have met with little success. People who are familiar with the growth of computer applications in other fields will surely recognize our current status by my characterization of the usual comments of traditional scholars: everything that has been done so far either ";confirms intuitions,"; or it threatens subjective views with reductionist facts. These objections are most easily understood when data about a literary work is expressed in quantitative and statistical terms, since these form an unfamiliar or alien language in themselves. The most cynical challenge is that, since computers are fast and expensive, all possible inquiries should certainly have been answered by now. The most favorable reaction, expressed by nearly everyone who has tried any computer-aided analysis of literature, is gratitude that it forced a precise definition of the questions and the terms of possible answers. It is not useful to complain about the scarcity of funds for computer-aided research in the humanities. The American Council of Learned Societies dropped this as a stated category of grants a few years ago. When money was forthcoming, some of the results were well received, even in traditional circles. The series of concordances produced at Cornell University, the archives of Latin and Greek texts gathered at Dartmouth and California (Irvine), the JEUDEMO text-analyzing system at Montreal, and the COCOA Concordance package from Atlas Computer Laboratory in Britain are obvious examples.4 As I see it, the only justification for the use of computers in literature is that they can help make generalizations about fairly large bodies of texts. No one needs a computer to show that the sentence ";I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"; contains three independent clauses and two subordinated clauses, or that it has a coordinating conjunction within the first grammatical sentence, and between the first two such sentences. This kind of analysis is done, properly, by the eye (or ";by hand";), and it is a typical exercise in many college courses on Whitman. Computer assistance is appropriate with the question of whether these lines are typical of ";Song of Myself,"; or how this poem has syntactic patterns different from poetry written before 1855. This example was chosen, in part, because no systematic analysis of Whitman's style has been tried (by hand or by computer), and because the paucity of data makes a definite answer to the historical questions impossible. Nevertheless, the questions are clearly defined and grounds for testing them exist within the laws of linguistics and statistics. Less scientifically, the issue of how Whitman's ";free verse"; was a special and influential experiment is a commonplace topic of literary interest.

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This record contains textual material that is copyright ©; 1978 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Contact the IEEE Computer Society http://www.computer.org/ (714-821-8380) for copies of the complete work that was the source of this textual material and for all use beyond that as a record from the SPI Database.

Computer-Aided Study of Literary Language

Donald Ross, Jr.

University of Minnesota

(Image Omitted: Work in artificial intelligence and the speed and flexibility of electronic storage offer potential solutions to the special problems encountered in describing the language of literature.)

Language has proven to be a complicated phenomenon to describe. The language of literature, where the author intentionally labors to make his work unique and interesting, adds special problems of its own. For not much more than a decade, a few dozen literary scholars have explored the extent to which computers could aid in describing poetry and prose, and then could channel the resulting descriptions irate the main current of criticism and explication. It is not surpising that the results so far have failed to produce a uniform methodology, nor has very much literature been treated. Most researchers have had modest budgets, and efforts to organize working centers for exchange of machine-readable texts or software packages have met with little success. People who are familiar with the growth of computer applications in other fields will surely recognize our current status by my characterization of the usual comments of traditional scholars: everything that has been done so far either "confirms intuitions," or it threatens subjective views with reductionist facts. These objections are most easily understood when data about a literary work is expressed in quantitative and statistical terms, since these form an unfamiliar or alien language in themselves. The most cynical challenge is that, since computers are fast and expensive, all possible inquiries should certainly have been answered by now. The most favorable reaction, expressed by nearly everyone who has tried any computer-aided analysis of literature, is gratitude that it forced a precise definition of the questions and the terms of possible answers.

It is not useful to complain about the scarcity of funds for computer-aided research in the humanities. The American Council of Learned Societies dropped this as a stated category of grants a few years ago. When money was forthcoming, some of the results were well received, even in traditional circles. The series of concordances produced at Cornell University, the archives of Latin and Greek texts gathered at Dartmouth and California (Irvine), the JEUDEMO text-analyzing system at Montreal, and the COCOA Concordance package from Atlas Computer Laboratory in Britain are obvious examples.4

As I see it, the only justification for the u...