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Research Tracks Evolution of Literary Style

If human culture could have a fossil record, what would it look like? This question has inspired research by WID Director David Krakauer.

Photo by Lin Kristensen via Wikimedia Commons

If human culture could have a fossil record, what would it look like?

Such a question has inspired David Krakauer, WID director and co-director of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation, to track cultural changes through the written word.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Krakauer and other researchers found that literary “style of time” is real and quantifiable, even among words that don’t carry any meaning.

“Literature, to me, is like the fossil record of culture,” Krakauer says. ”If you want to understand the past, you excavate.”

Rather than a geological excavation, Krakauer’s work involves computation, books and essays. Along with scientists at Dartmouth College and the Santa Fe Institute, Krakauer examined content-free words such as “and,” “the” and “of” in 537 authors’ work featured in the online Project Gutenberg.

These content-free words serve as the glue to communicate ideas — they transcend subject, making them valuable in tracking literary styles and cultural changes through time.

For each author, the team computed an average of how often 307 content-free words were used in a sample of literary works. While comparing authors, a clear pattern emerged: Writers with similar averages were also practicing their craft around the same time.

But the correlation tapered off as the years progressed. Moving forward in time from the 1500s, researchers found that the use of content-free words was less similar among authors, suggesting people may have been less influenced by the writing styles of their contemporaries.

Krakauer says this makes sense, considering the fact that the sheer number of texts to choose from has exploded in recent centuries.

“The more alarming result for us is the way influence works — it’s accelerating, meaning there was a time when you were influenced by everyone before you,” Krakauer says. “And now you’re only influenced by your contemporaries.”

He compares the idea to the odds of two people on campus reading the same 100 books in their lifetimes. With so many texts to choose from, it’s unlikely people will draw influence from the same authors. This wasn’t the case 500 years ago when less reading material was available.

The team also discovered that people writing about the same literary topics used a similar number of content-free words as well.

“What we found is that if you work on the same topic, you tend to respond to language in the same way — it’s more subtle” Krakauer says.

Still, figuring out how influence among authors actually works is tricky. Krakauer says writers could have influenced one another, but it’s also possible that literary styles reflect oral speech common to the time period.

He says future projects may focus on further teasing out literary influences, studying non-Western literary samples and studying more specific grammatical relationships.

Marianne English


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