Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Writing evolution

Science is one of my favourite subjects, and has been a constant in my life. While my friends were reading Stephen King, I was reading Stephen Hawking. He, along with Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and more recently Professor Brian Cox are among my science champions. When I log on to my computer, I get the latest science news. I can hear you thinking “science nerd supreme” but I don't mind.

Recently among the science bullets, I read a blurb about a study conducted by Daniel Rockmore and his cronies at Dartmouth college in New Hampshire on what they term a “stylometric” study of literature. (Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1115407109) Sounds dull, but wait! don't glaze over just yet it's rather fascinating really. According to Rockmore and his team, “Literature is a form of expression whose temporal structure, both in content and style, provides a historical record of the evolution of culture.”

Rockmore, who is a mathematician, found that writers were influenced by their writing contemporaries rather than their literary heroes as we may have assumed and that is how the style of writing has evolved. Pretty heady stuff eh?

The survey also found that earlier writers composed their works in a similar vein but concluded that is most likely because they read the same small group of “classics” and drew from those works. As the literary pool grew, so did the style of the greats of literature. But I suppose just like today, as time marches on, we reach for more current vernacular to express our views, because we want to appear to have a fresh voice. I must be a dinosaur, as I like those older written works, they seem so much more articulate to me. So, (and not ergo) in writing as with speaking, the adage “Out with the old and in with the new.” characterizes how our language progresses.

Curiously, the researchers in the project targeted what they term content-free words like “to, or, and that” among others. It's the usage of these smaller words that Rockmore's team focused on and although these words have been used throughout time, how they are used causes our writing to evolve. It makes you sit back and contemplate what Hamlet's “To be or not to be” soliloquy would sound like today.

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