18.418 text-analysis in the news

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 10 Dec 2004 08:00:25 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 418.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 10 Dec 2004 07:43:10 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: text-analysis in the news

On Wednesday I was startled to see a concordance program appearing on the
evening news, on BBC 4 television, at the hands of a medical researcher
looking into textual evidence for Iris Murdoch's decline due to
Alzheimer's. What appeared was a frequency listing generated by Rob Watt's
Concordance 3.0. An account of the story may be found at
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4058605.stm. Attention to the research
was provoked by an article in the OUP journal Brain: Peter Garrard, Lisa M.
Maloney, John R. Hodges and Karalyn Patterson, "The effects of very early
Alzheimer's disease on the characteristics of writing by a renowned
author", for 1 December 2004. I quote the summary from the article:

>Iris Murdoch (I.M.) was among the most celebrated British writers of the
>post-war era. Her final novel, however, received a less than
>enthusiastic critical response on its publication in 1995. Not long
>afterwards, I.M. began to show signs of insidious cognitive decline, and
>received a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, which was confirmed
>histologically after her death in 1999. Anecdotal evidence, as well as
>the natural history of the condition, would suggest that the changes of
>Alzheimer's disease were already established in I.M. while she was
>writing her final work. The end product was unlikely, however, to have
>been influenced by the compensatory use of dictionaries or thesauri, let
>alone by later editorial interference. These facts present a unique
>opportunity to examine the effects of the early stages of Alzheimer's
>disease on spontaneous written output from an individual with
>exceptional expertise in this area. Techniques of automated textual
>analysis were used to obtain detailed comparisons among three of her
>novels: her first published work, a work written during the prime of her
>creative life and the final novel. Whilst there were few disparities at
>the levels of overall structure and syntax, measures of lexical
>diversity and the lexical characteristics of these three texts varied
>markedly and in a consistent fashion. This unique set of findings is
>discussed in the context of the debate as to whether syntax and
>semantics decline separately or in parallel in patients with Alzheimer's

The statistics used in the analysis go further than frequency lists, but
how much further they could have gone, if only they knew what some of us
know, remains for those in the know to say -- perhaps here?


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Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
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Received on Fri Dec 10 2004 - 03:07:30 EST

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