[Humanist] 26.641 collocation, span and theories of memory

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jan 2 08:59:41 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 641.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 1 Jan 2013 19:50:42 -0500
        From: Michael Hancher <mh at umn.edu>
        Subject: Re:  26.631 collocation, span and theories of memory?
        In-Reply-To: <20121229101430.93900311A at digitalhumanities.org>


"Span," originally a spatial term, didn't apply to temporal matters until
the sixteenth century. And although we now think of "attention span" as a
matter of time, duration, and memory, that concept, too, was at first
spatial, not temporal, synchronic, not diachronic. "The question of _the
'span' of consciousness_ has often been asked and answered," William James
remarked in 1890, below the rubric "To how many things can we attend at
once?" (_Principles of Psychology_ 1:405). He found that "the number of
[things] that can be attended to at once is small" (1:406; see also 1:409).
For James, attention "span" was simultaneous ("at once") breadth of
attention, not duration of attention.

     Michael Hancher

        Date: Sat, 29 Dec 2012 09:18:03 +0000
>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>         Subject: collocation, span and theories of memory
> I would very much like to understand the historical relation between the
> idea of "span" in psychology, and so the related distinction between
> short-term and working memories, and the ideas of "span" and
> "collocation" in corpus linguistics. I strongly suspect that the former
> inspired the latter but have not yet found an explicit link. Let me
> sketch briefly what I have found so far.
> In the OED psychological span is defined as "Mental extent; the amount
> of information that the mind can be conscious of at a given moment, or
> the number of items it can reproduce after one presentation; esp. const.
> of, as span of apprehension, attention span, consciousness span, etc.".
> The first occurrence given is from an article in Mind in 1887, where it
> is clearly used in the spirit of Hermann Ebbinghaus (who began the
> empirical studies of memorization and recall using nonsense syllables).
> In 1956 George A Miller, working by then in the context of digital
> computing, gave a great boost to the idea in his famous paper, "The
> Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for
> Processing Information" (Psychological Review 63.2). According to Alan
> Baddeley in "Working Memory: Looking Back and Looking Forward" (Nature
> Reviews: Neuroscience 4, October 2003), Miller, Galanter and Pribram
> invented the closely related term "working memory" in Plans and the
> Structure of Behavior (1960), in which the influence of computing is
> fundamental. Short-term memory is not the same but closely related, in a
> manner that varies according to theory, though for my purposes the
> distinction does not matter. What does matter is the teasing
> correspondence between ideas of memory, often involving context-free
> words or word-like units, and structures familiar from the architecture
> of digital computers of the time (memory registers, shifting and
> storage). Kurt Danziger notes in Marking the Mind (p. 176) that long-
> and short-term memory are the only two core-concepts having to do with
> memory that number among the 58 in psychology turned up by a
> content-analysis study textbooks of the 1990s. In the latter half of the
> 20th Century there are many publications in the psychology of learning
> and intelligence-testing, some in journals of education, that deal with
> attention- and recall-span measured, again in a Ebbinghausian way, in
> terms of contiguous words remembered.
> In the glossary to Corpus Concordance Collocation (1991), John Sinclair
> defines "span" as follows:
> > ...the measurement, in words, of the co-text [the words on either
> > side] of a word selected for study. A span of -4, +4 means that four
> > words on either side of the node [selected] word will be taken to be
> > its relevant verbal environment.
> In other words, span is the measure within which collocations normally
> occur, +4, -4 for modern English, though Sinclair elsewhere notes that
> it is wise to look more widely. Unfortunately the OED does not record
> "span" in the linguistic sense. In 1957, a year after Miller sprang his
> magic number on the world, J. R. Firth proclaimed in "A Synopsis of
> Linguistic Theory, 1930-1955" , "You shall know a word by the company it
> keeps!" (reapplying the old Latin injunction, "noscitur e sociis"). He
> went on to note that "collocation is first suggested as a technical
> term" in his previously published essay, "Modes of Meaning" (pp. 124-7),
> also published in Papers in Linguistics 1934-1951 (Oxford, 1957).
> From the invention of the keyword-in-context concordance (ca 1959,
> three years after Miller's paper, two after Firth's) we have first in
> print-out, then on screen something like a display of a short-term
> memory implying manipulation. From the release of the first truly
> interactive
> concordancer (TACT, in 1989) we have something like an implementation
> of working memory. I know that I am stretching things here, but not beyond
> the breaking point?
> There is a larger story to be told from before the digitization of mind
> by inspiration from physical computing machines -- the stream flows both
> ways -- but meanwhile I would very much appreciate pointers to anything
> that shows explicit transfer of ideas from memory studies to literary
> and linguistic studies.
> Many thanks in advance. And comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
> the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
> London; Professor, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics,
> University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
> (www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist
> (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

Michael Hancher
Professor of English, College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota
207 Lind Hall, 207 Church Street SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455
612–625–5075; fax 612–624–8228
mh.cla.umn.edu ● Google

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