December 05, 2010

Syntax beating Prosody

In a recent article on the use of corpus linguistic methods in literary studies, the Times reported on the exhilaration and also anxiety about the potential of "electronic tools" and the application of statistical analysis to literary texts. Being able to count things often may lead to a shift towards research questions that rely on quantifiable data. Linguists will mostly take a "been there, done that" position -- after all, corpus linguistics is not exactly a new field or methodology.

Yet large searches can also challenge some pet theories of close reading, he said: for example, that the Victorians were obsessed with the nature and origins of evil. As it turns out, books with the word “evil” in the title bumped along near the bottom of the graph, accounting for less than 0.1 percent — a thousandth — of those published during the Victorian era. As Mr. Cohen is quick to acknowledge, the meaning of those numbers is anything but clear. Perhaps authors didn’t like to use the word “evil” in the title; perhaps there were other, more common synonyms; perhaps the context points to another subject altogether.
Precisely. Sometimes the things one looks for are not encoded in particular words. And words can be misleading:
Ms. Martin at Princeton knows firsthand how electronic searches can unearth both obscure texts and dead ends. She has spent the last 10 years compiling a list of books, newspaper and journal articles about the technical aspects of poetry. She recalled finding a sudden explosion of the words “syntax” and “prosody” in 1832, suggesting a spirited debate about poetic structure. But it turned out that Dr. Syntax and Prosody were the names of two racehorses. “You find 200 titles with ‘Syntax,’ and you think there must be a big grammar debate that year,” Ms. Martin said, “but it was just that Syntax was winning.”
No grammar debate, perhaps, but you gotta love a period in history when racehorses were called Dr. Syntax and Prosody!

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