[Humanist] 23.557 stylometric study wins

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jan 11 07:22:53 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 557.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 11 Jan 2010 06:10:16 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: prize-winning computational analysis of Agatha Christie's novels

U of T research tops N.Y. Times' 2009 Ideas list:
Analysis shows that Agatha Christie likely suffered from Alzheimer's
By Elaine Smith, posted Wednesday, December 16, 2009

University of Toronto News

Research by U of T professors Ian Lancashire and Graeme Hirst has 
garnered top spot in the N.Y. Times' 9th Annual Year in Ideas.

Lancashire, a professor of English, and Hirst, a computer scientist, 
provide evidence that famed mystery novelist Agatha Christie suffered 
from Alzheimer's-related dementia during the final years of her life. 
It's a conclusion some of her biographers have reached, but the U of T 
duo offers proof.

The pair digitized 14 of her novels and used textual analysis software 
to determine the richness and size of the vocabulary used, as well as 
phrases often repeated and an increase in the use of indefinite words, 
an indicator of the disease.

Their results, published in a paper titled Vocabulary Changes in Agatha 
Christie's Mysteries as an Indication of Dementia, were statistically 
significant. They showed that her final two books use a much smaller 
vocabulary than her earlier works, with differences as large as 31 per 
cent. Other later works compared with her last two volumes also show a 
much richer vocabulary.

"This publicity -- and the honour it bestows -- reflects a hope that an 
aging society has for ways to detect Alzheimer's disease, a human 
scourge, earlier than possible now," said Lancashire. "People in all 
walks of life can understand, and even become conscious of, a change in 
their personal language. People have a horde of e-mail or blog entries 
now that go back some years. The simple vocabulary measures used in the 
poster, the graph and the brief paper can be grasped and applied by 
anyone, privately, non-invasively. The findings astonished me when I 
found them two years ago. If the N.Y. Times recognition brings more 
medical researchers to study language, I'll be delighted.

Lancashire said the New York Times publicity is also a recognition of 
the value of interdisciplinary research and the role the humanities have 
to play in such projects.

"At Toronto, the N.Y.Times notice highlights the deep strength of this 
university in interdisciplinary research. Even English professors may 
have a role to play in practical research of broad public interest. I 
could not have presented and interpreted my findings properly without 
the collaboration of Graeme Hirst in computational linguistics and 
Regina Jokel at Baycrest. I am so fortunate to work in a team now with 
these colleagues and Graeme's student Xuan Le."

Lancashire and Hirst plan to continue their textual analysis work, 
examining the writings of mystery novelist P.D. James, who continues to 
be prolific as she ages, and mystery writers such as Ross MacDonald, who 
is known to have suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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