Friday, December 10, 2010

Who will we be 200 years from now?

by Rachel S.

A friend recently passed on this article printed in The New York Times last week. The headline, “Analyzing Literature by Words and Numbers,” drew me in and I was immediately curious (well, also because I thought the accompanying photograph was pretty). I have always been fascinated by words in all senses. There are words I love because of how they sound or how they look written, words I find interesting purely due to their uses in colloquial speech, and all the ways that a single word can be used to represent so many different things.

Patricia Cohen’s article sheds light on a new computer process that is able to search every single British book published in English during the so-called Victorian era (language analysis and fainting salts? I’m in). This means 1,681,161 texts were analyzed and searched for words that will supposedly shed light on the sentiments and concerns of the 19th century.

Apparently, because of the prevalence of words such as ‘hope,’ ‘light,’ and ‘sunlight,’ the Victorian era was marked by a particular optimism not present in the precedent centuries. Uncovered was the rising secular skepticism of the Enlightenment as well as an unexpected decline in a focus on the idea of evil.

Of course, since this shows only a written record for analysis, there are mistakes to be made. One scholar thought that she had made a groundbreaking discovery proving a shift in focus towards literary debates and analysis after she noted a huge jump in the words “prosody” and “syntax” in 1832. Turns out, Prosody and Syntax were popular racehorses of the day and articles were merely noting race results.

I’ve talked before about words I use too frequently in my writing and that words themselves go in and out of fashion is an indisputable fact. No doubt, this sort of technology will advance to degrees we can’t even imagine, so I’m interested in what sorts of conclusions analysts will draw about life in the 20th and 21st centuries based solely on our written work. Are we optimistic or cynical? Do we tend to focus on ourselves or others? How well do we represent ourselves on paper, anyway?


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