Please don't tell me about it

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Those who can read German may be interested in some recent work by Gerd Fritz, of the Zentrum für Medien und Interaktivität at the Justus-Liebig-Universitaet Giessen, on "Texttypen im Language Log" ("Text types in Language Log"). Prof. Fritz tells me that this is "a brief summary of a longer paper to be published shortly".

It begins (apologies as usual for my inexpert translation):

Was macht einen erfolgreichen Wissenschaftsblog aus? Nun, die aktuellen Themen, die richtige Mischung von Texten unterschiedlicher Art, der lockere Tonfall und – natürlich – die zuverlässigen Verfasser von Beiträgen, die die Kontinuität sichern. Alle diese Merkmale sind beim „Language Log“ erfüllt, [...]

What makes a successful science blog? Well, current topics, the right mixture of different kinds of texts, the relaxed tone, and — of course — the reliable authors of posts, ensuring continuity. All of these features are found in Language Log, [...]

Der erste Eindruck beim Lesen des „Language Log“ ist der einer unüberschaubaren Vielfalt von Textelementen und Textvarianten, [...]. Das Produktionsprinzip scheint zu sein: Anything goes!

The first impression in reading Language Log is of a bewildering variety of text elements and text variations, [...]. The production principle seems to be: Anything goes!

Ich wollte mir das einmal genauer anschauen und habe eine kleine Fallstudie zu den Texttypen gemacht. Diese Fallstudie erscheint in ein paar Wochen in einem Sammelband mit dem Titel „Digitale Wissenschaftskommunikation – Formate und ihre Nutzung“, online und mit Open Access. Wir werden darüber berichten. Hier schon einmal eine „sneak preview“ auf die Fallstudie.

I wanted to take a closer look, and have made a small case study of the text types. This case study will appear in a few weeks in an edited volume with the title Digital Science Communication — Formats and Their Usage. We will report on it. Here 's a sneak preview of the case study.

I've skimmed the rest of Prof. Fritz's post, and I've concluded that I'd rather not read it. (Luckily, my German is weak enough that skimming such a text gives me a sense of the shape of the argument, without assimilating much of the detail.)

My decision does not reflect any doubts as to the quality of the work. Rather, I hope to avoid the fate that David Lodge so poignantly invented for the writer Ronald Frobisher in his 1984 novel Small World.

The scene is a pub, and Frobisher is explaining to Persse McGarrigle why he's been blocked for the past six years, having lost his style. "Or rather, I lost faith in it. Same thing, really."

“How did you come to lose faith in your style?” Persse enquired.

“I’ll tell you. I can date it precisely from a trip I made to Darlington six years ago. There’s a new university there, you know, one of those plateglass and poured-concrete affairs on the edge of the town. They wanted to give me an honorary degree. Not the most prestigious university in the world, but nobody else had offered to give me a degree. The idea was, Darlington’s a working-class, industrial town, so they’d honour a writer who wrote about working-class, industrial life. I bought that. I was sort of flattered, to tell the truth. So I went up there to receive this degree. The usual flummery of robes and bowing and lifting your cap to the vice-chancellor and so on. Bloody awful lunch. But it was all right, I didn’t mind. But then, when the official part was over, I was nobbled by a man in the English Department. Name of Dempsey.”

“Robin Dempsey,” said Persse.

“Oh, you know him? Not a friend of yours, I hope?”

“Definitely not.”

“Good. Well, as you probably know, this Dempsey character is gaga about computers. I gathered this over lunch, because he was sitting opposite me. ‘I’d like to take you over to our Computer Centre this afternoon,’ he said. ‘We’ve got something set up for you that I think you’ll find interesting.’ He was sort of twitching in his seat with excitement as he said it, like a kid who can’t wait to unwrap his Christmas presents. So when the degree business was finished, I went with him to this Computer Centre. Rather grand name, actually, it was just a prefabricated hut, with a couple of sheep cropping the grass outside. There was another chap there, sort of running the place, called Josh. But Dempsey did all the talking. ‘You’ve probably heard,’ he said, ‘of our Centre for Computational Stylistics.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘Where is it?’ ‘Where? Well, it’s here, I suppose,’ he said. ‘I mean, I’m it, so it’s wherever I am. That is, wherever I am when I’m doing computational stylistics, which is only one of my research interests. It’s not so much a place,’ he said, ‘as a headed notepaper. Anyway,’ he went on, ‘when we heard that the University was going to give you an honorary degree, we decided to make yours the first complete corpus in our tape archive.’ ‘What does that mean?’ I said. ‘It means,’ he said, holding up a flat metal canister rather like the sort you keep film spools in, ‘It means that every word you’ve ever published is in here.’ His eyes gleamed with a kind of manic glee, like he was Frankenstein, or some kind of wizard, as if he had me locked up in that flat metal box. Which, in a way, he had. ‘What’s the use of that?’ I asked. ‘What’s the use of it?’ he said, laughing hysterically. ‘What’s the use? Let’s show him, Josh.’ And he passed the canister to the other guy, who takes out a spool of tape and fits it on to one of the machines. ‘Come over here,’ says Dempsey, and sits me down in front of a kind of typewriter with a TV screen attached. ‘With that tape,’ he said, ‘we can request the computer to supply us with any information we like about your ideolect.’ ‘Come again?’ I said. ‘Your own special, distinctive, unique way of using the English language. What’s your favorite word?’ ‘My favorite word? I don’t have one.’ ‘Oh yes you do!’ he said. ‘The word you use most frequently.’ ‘That’s probably the or a or and,’ I said. He shook his head impatiently. ‘We instruct the computer to ignore what we call grammatical words—articles, prepositions, pronouns, modal verbs, which have a high frequency rating in all discourse. Then we get to the real nitty-gritty, what we call the lexical words, the words that carry a distinctive semantic content. Words like love or dark or heart or God. Let’s see.’ So he taps away on the keyboard and instantly my favourite word appears on the screen. What do you think it was?’

“Beer?” Persse ventured.

Frobisher looked at him a shade suspiciously through his owlish spectacles, and shook his head. “Try again.”

“I don’t know, I’m sure,” said Persse.

Frobisher paused to drink and swallow, then looked solemnly at Persse. “Grease,” he said, at length.

“Grease?” Persse repeated blankly.

Grease. Greasy. Greased. Various forms and applications of the root, literal and metaphorical. I didn’t believe him at first, I laughed in his face. Then he pressed a button and the machine began listing all the phrases in my works in which the word grease appears in one form or another. There they were, streaming across the screen in front of me, faster than I could read them, with page references and line numbers. The greasy floor, the roads greasy with rain, the grease-stained cuff, the greasy jam butty, his greasy smile, the grease-smeared table, the greasy small change of their conversation, even, would you believe it, his body moved in hers like a well-greased piston. I was flabberglasted, I can tell you. My entire oeuvre seemed to be saturated with grease. I’d never realized I was so obsessed with the stuff. Dempsey was chortling with glee, pressing buttons to show what my other favourite words were. Grey and grime were high on the list, I seem to remember. I seemed to have a penchant for depressing words beginning with a hard ‘g’. Also sink, smoke, feel, struggle, run and sensual. Then he started to refine the categories. The parts of the body I mentioned most often were hand and breast, usually one on the other. The direct speech of male characters was invariably introduced by the simple tag he said, but the speech of women by a variety of expressive verbal groups, she gasped, she sighed, she whispered urgently, she cried passionately. All my heroes have brown eyes, like me. Their favourite expletive is bugger. The women they fall in love with tend to have Biblical names, especially ones beginning with ‘R’—Ruth, Rachel, Rebecca, and so on. I like to end chapters with a short moodless sentence.”

“You remember all this from six years ago?” Persse marvelled.

“Just in case I might forget, Robin Demspey gave me a printout of the whole thing, popped it into a folder and gave it to me to take home. ‘A little souvenir of the day,’ he was pleased to call it. Well, I took it home, read it on the train, and the next morning, when I sat down at my desk and tried to get on with my novel, I found I couldn’t. Every time I wanted an adjective, greasy would spring into my mind. Every time I wrote he said, I would scratch it out and write he groaned or he laughed, but it didn’t seem right—but when I went back to he said, that didn’t seem right either, it seemed predictable and mechanical. Robin and Josh had really fucked me up between them. I’ve never been able to write fiction since.”

He ended, and emptied his tankard in a single draught.

“That’s the saddest story I ever heard,” said Persse.


Seriously, I do plan to read Prof. Fritz's chapter when it comes out. I mean, what harm could it do?

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14 Comments »

  1. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    Wait a minute. This is what you guys do to us, the hacks who just use the language ;-)

    I like the "lockerer Tonfall". This is a characteristic reaction of German speakers to English texts on any kind of expert subject. The explanation is simple: in German, expert language has its own style conventions which are well removed from everyday speech. English-speaking academics much more often aspire to a style that is more ordinary and plays down their expert status.

    Popular science in German seems to be much more a professional activity of people with a journalism background, whereas in English, it is often a sideline of real professors (and one that can win them recognition, if done well).

  2. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    Having looked through Mr. Fritz's post, I wouldn't worry, if I were you. It's a pretty clunky attempt to understand your collective genius. Nowhere near as scary as the Lodge passage.

  3. Jonathan Badger said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 11:51 am

    Perhaps not the point of the Lodge quote, but *did* people do such analyzes in (what I would presume to be, given the 1984 date of the novel) the mid 1970s? Obviously today such things are almost trivial and can be done in an afternoon on a desktop PC, but back then they would have been serious undertakings, requiring tedious transcription (no ebooks) and large amounts of computing power for the time.

    [(myl) Although I don't know a great deal about it, I think that the short answer to your question is "yes". A historical sketch of "humanities computing" (which includes other things like concordances, lexicographical applications, authorship investigations, etc.) is here.

    As that history notes, Father Roberto Busa began producing a digital corpus of the complete works of Thomas Aquinas in 1949. And the Brown Corpus -- a balanced corpus of a million words published in the U.S. in 1961 -- was compiled and analyzed in the early 1960s by Kucera and Francis.

    So it would have been quite feasible -- though, as you say, tedious -- to construct a novelist-specific corpus for stylistic analysis in the 1970s, and a certain amount of that sort of thing was certainly done, though I don't know of any cases where the compete works of a living novelist were analyzed.]

  4. Mr Punch said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    Jonathan B. see:

    Title : A PREFACE TO COMPUTATIONAL STYLISTICS,

    Corporate Author : SYSTEM DEVELOPMENT CORP SANTA MONICA CALIF

    Personal Author(s) : Yeates Sedelow,Sally ; Sedelow,Walter A. ,Jr.

    Report Date : 17 FEB 1964

    Pagination or Media Count : 24

    Abstract : Stylistic analysis, the study of patterns formed in the process of the linguistic encoding of information, is of importance to any major research focused upon or dependent upon the production or analysis of language. Through the use of computers, it should be possible to achieve more accurate detection and delineation of such linguistic patterns than has hitherto been the case; a quantitatively rigorous and intense study of pattern or style in natural language called computational stylistics. Computational stylistics has immediate, practical implications for work in areas ranging from machine translation and automatic abstracting to the social sciences and humanities. For adequate machine translations and automatic abstracts, algorithms of normative style for the textual genre being translated or abstracted must be available; the use of the computer for stylistic analysis will help make possible the recognition and specification of such algorithms. Stylistic analysis is also integral to the detection of idiosyncratic uses of language which distinguish one author from another. An author's style is his signature. Through analysis of individual style, researchers can find clues to unique characteristics in linguistic pattern.

    [(myl) See also e.g.

    Frederick Mosteller & David Wallace, "Inference in an authorship problem", J. Amer. Statist. Assoc. 58 (1963), 275–309.
    Frederick Mosteller & David Wallace, Inference and Disputed Authorship: The Federalist, Addison-Wesley, 1964.
    ]

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    Wasn't it through stylistic analysis that Joe Klein was exposed as the "Anonymous" author or Primary Colors?

    [(myl) Yes, but that was in 2000, 25 to 50 years after the period under discussion.]

  6. Hermann G Burch said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

    Prof. Fritz writes komprimiert meaning "compressed" (probably), when my internal translator read "compromised." Google translate renders the latter as gefährdet which is "endangered" in its primary meaning. Scary how much the mother tongue has changed in the near-half century since I emigrated.

  7. Sal said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

    As Billy Bragg so wisely sings, "The temptation to take the precious things we have apart to see how they work must be resisted; for they never fit together again."

  8. Juliane said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

    Hermann G Burch: I don't think the meaning of komprimiert has changed. Aren't you confusing komprimiert and kompromittiert?

  9. Herman Burch said,

    June 25, 2011 @ 1:26 am

    @Juliane: You are absolutely right, I had confused those words, as I later recalled. Being gone for so long, memory has lapsed, sorry.

  10. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 25, 2011 @ 2:21 am

    komprimiert in this sentence just means "short" (25-dollar version: condensed).

  11. Gary said,

    June 25, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    A sidelight on the Brown Corpus:

    Besides being a professor, Kucera was head resident fellow and gave a weekly sherry party for undergraduates. He occasionally liked to dramatize for us undergrads the story of going to New York to buy pornography as part of the corpus balancing process, followed by the feelings of danger and excitement while he carried the stuff back to Providence for punching onto cards.

  12. Daniel H. said,

    June 25, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    It is really sad.

    Please don't read it.

  13. Catanea said,

    June 25, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

    Oh, but it is so nice to see David Lodge quoted at length.
    Thank-you.

  14. Dakota said,

    June 26, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    Golden egg goose? If it's not broke don't fix it.

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