As those who follow our Twitter account will know, Linguistic DNA’s principal investigator, Susan Fitzmaurice, was among the invited speakers at the recent symposium on Digital Humanities & Conceptual Change (organised by Mikko Tolonen, at the University of Helsinki). It was an opportunity to set out the distinctive approach being taken by our project and the theoretical understanding of concepts that underpins it. What follows is based on extracts from Suzan Fitzmaurice’s paper on “Concepts and Conceptual Change in Linguistic DNA”, aka the Linguistic DNA ‘manifesto’. Susan wrote:
“Linguistic DNA’s goal is to understand the ways in which the concepts (or paradigmatic terms) that define modernity emerge in the universe of Early Modern discourse. The methodology we are committed to developing, testing and using, i.e. the bottom-up querying of a universe of printed discourse in English, demands that we took a fresh look at the notion of a concept and its content. So how will we operationalise a concept, and how will we recognise a concept in the data?”
Defining the content of a concept from above
Historians and semanticists alike tend to start by identifying a set of key concepts and pursue their investigation by using a paradigmatic approach. For semanticists, this entails identifying a ‘concept’ in onomasiological terms as a bundle of (near-)synonyms that refer to aspects of the semantic space occupied by a concept in order to chart conceptual change in different periods and variation in different lects.
Historians, too, have identified key concepts through keywords or paradigmatic terms, which they then explore through historiography and the inspection of historical documents, seeking the evidence that underpins the emergence of particular terms and the forces and circumstances in which these change (Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte or Quentin Skinner’s competing discourses). Semanticists and historians alike tend to approach concepts in a primarily semasiological way, for example, Anna Wierzbicka (2010) focuses on the history of evidence, and Naomi Tadmor (1996) uses ‘kin’ as a starting point for exploring concepts based on the meanings of particular words.
Philosophers of science, who are interested in the nature of conceptual change as driven or motivated by scientific inquiry and technological advances, may see concepts and conceptual change differently. For example, Ingo Brigandt (2010) argues that a scientific concept consists of a definition, its ‘inferential role’ or ‘reference potential’ and the epistemic goal pursued by the term’s use in order to account for the rationality of semantic change in a concept. So the change in the meaning of ‘gene’, from the classical gene which is about inheritance in the 1910s and 1920s, to the molecular gene in the 1960s and 1970s which is about characteristics, can be shown to be motivated by the changing nature of the explanatory task required of the term ‘gene’. In such a case, the goal is to explain the way in which the scientific task changes the meaning associated with the terms, rather than exploring the change itself. Thus Brigandt tries to make it explicit that
‘apart from a changing meaning (inferential role) [the concept also has] an epistemic goal which is tied to a concept’s use and which is the property setting the standards for which changes in meaning are rational’ (2010: 24).
His understanding of the pragmatics-driven structure of a concept is a useful basis for the construction of conceptual change as involving polysemy through the processes of invited inference and conversational implicature (cf. Traugott & Dasher, 2002; Fitzmaurice, 2015).
In text-mining and information retrieval work in biomedical language processing, as reported in Genome Biology, concept recognition is used to extract information about gene names from the literature. William Baumgartner et al. (2008) argue that
‘Concepts differ from character strings in that they are grounded in well-defined knowledge resources. Concept recognition provides the key piece of information missing from a string of text—an unambiguous semantic representation of what the characters denote’ (2008: S4).
Admittedly, this is a very narrow definition, but given the range of different forms and expressions that a gene or protein might have in the text, the notion of concept recognition needs to go well beyond the character string and ‘identification of mentions in text’. So they developed ‘mention regularization’ procedures and disambiguation techniques as a basis for concept recognition involving ‘the more complex task of identifying and extracting protein interaction relations’ (Baumgartner et al. 2008: S7-15).
In LDNA, we were interested in investigating what people (in particular periods) would have considered to be emerging and important cultural and political concepts in their own time by exploring their texts. This task involved not identifying a set of concepts in advance and mining the literature of the period to ascertain the impact made by those concepts, but querying the literature to see what emerged as important. Therefore, our approach was neither semasiological, whereby we track the progress and historical fortunes of a particular term, such as marriage, democracy or evidence, nor was it onomasiological, whereby we inspect the paradigmatic content of a more abstract, yet given, notion such as TRUTH or POLITY, etc. We had to take a further step back, to consider the kind of analysis that precedes the implementation of either a semasiological or an onomasiological study of the lexical material we might construct as a concept (e.g. as indicated by a keyword).
Defining the content of a concept from below
Before tackling the problem of actually defining the content of a concept ‘from below’, we need to imagine ourselves into the position of being able to recognize the emergence of material that is a candidate for being considered a concept. Let’s briefly consider the question of ‘when is a concept’; in other words, how will we recognize something that is relevant, resonant and important in historical, cultural and political terms for our periods of interest?
In a manner that is not trivial, we wanted our research process to perform the discovery work of an innocent reader, a reader who approaches a universe of discourse without an agenda, but with a will to discover what the text yields up as worthy of notice. This innocent reader is an ideal reader of course; as humans are pattern finders, pattern matchers and meaning makers, it is virtually impossible to imagine a process that is truly ab initio. Indeed, a situation in which the reader is not primed to notice specific features, characteristics or meanings by the cotext or broader context is rare indeed.
The aim was for our processes to imitate the intuitive, intelligent scanning that human readers perform as they survey the universe of discourse in which they are interested (literary and historical documents).1 We assume that readers gradually begin to notice patterns, perhaps prominent combinations or associations, patterns that appear in juxtaposition in some places and in connection in others (Divjak & Gries, 2012). The key process is the noticing in the text the formation of ideas that gather cohesion and content in linguistic expression. We hypothesized that in the process of noticing, the reader begins to attribute increasing weight to the meanings they locate in the text. One model for this hypothesis is the experience of the foreign language learner who reads a text with her attention drawn to the expressions she recognises and can construe.
The principal problem posed by our project was therefore to extract from the discourse stuff that we might be able to discern as potential concepts. In other words, we aimed to identify a concept from the discourse inwards by inspecting the language instead of defining a concept from its content outward (i.e. starting with a term and discerning its meaning). If we move from the discourse inwards, the meanings that we attribute weight to may be implicit and distributed across a stretch of text, in a text window.
That is, the meanings we notice as relevant might not be encapsulated in individual lexical items or character strings within a simple syntactic frame. This recognition required that we resist the temptation to treat a word or a character string as coterminous with a concept. Indeed, the more we associate relevance with, say, the frequency of a particular word or character string in a sub-corpus, the less likely we are to be able to look beyond the word as an index of a concept. To remain open and receptive in the process of candidate concept recognition, we needed to expand the range of the things we inspected on the one hand and the scope of the context we read on the other.
The linguistic material that will be relevant to the identification of a concept will consist of a combination or set of expressions in association that occur in a concentrated fashion in a stretch of text. Importantly, this material may consist of lexical items, phrases, sentences, and may be conveyed metaphorically as well as literally, and likely pragmatically (by implicature and invited inference) as well as semantically. If the linguistic elaboration (definition, paraphrase, implication) of a concept precedes the lexicalization of a concept, it is reasonable to assume that the appearance of regularly and frequently occurring expressions in degrees of proximity within a window will aid the identification of a concept.
The scope of the context in which a concept appears is likely to be greater than the phrase or sentence that is the context for the keyword that we customarily consider in collocation studies. This context is akin to the modern notion of the paragraph, or, the unit of discourse which conventionally treats a topic or subject with the commentary that makes up the content of the paragraph. The stretch of text relevant for the identification of conceptual material may thus amount to a paragraph, a page, or a short text.
The linguistic structure of a concept has been shown to be built both paradigmatically (via synonymy) and syntagmatically (via lexical associations, syntax, paraphrase). For our purposes, given that the task entailed picking up clues to the construction of concepts from the linguistic material in the context, where ‘context’ is defined pretty broadly, paradigmatic relations were less likely to be salient than syntagmatic relations like paraphrase, vagueness and association, perhaps more than predictable relations like antonymy and polysemy.
The supra-lexical approach to the process of concept recognition described previously depends upon an encyclopaedic perspective on semantics (e.g. cf. Geeraerts, 2010: 222-3). This is fitting as ‘encyclopaedic semantics is an implicit precursor to or foundation of most distributional semantics or collocation studies’ (Mehl, p.c.). However, such studies do not typically pause to model or theorise before conducting analysis of concepts and semantics as expressed lexically. In other words, semasiological (and onomasiological) studies work on the premise of ready-made or at least ready lexicalised concepts, and proceed from there. This means that although they depend upon the prior application of encyclopaedic semantics, they themselves do not need to model or theorise this semantics because it belongs to the cultural messiness that yields the lexical expressions that they then proceed to analyse.1
For LDNA, concepts were not discrete or componential lexical semantic meanings; neither are they abstract or ideal. Instead, they consisted of associations of lexical/phrasal/constructional semantic and pragmatic meanings in use.
This encyclopaedic perspective suggested the following operationalisation of a concept for LDNA:
- Concepts resemble encyclopaedic meanings (which are temporally and culturally situated chunks of knowledge about the world expressed in a distributed way) rather than discrete or componential meanings. [This coincides with non-modular theories of mind, which adopt a psychological approach to concepts.]
- Concepts can be expressed in texts by (typically a combination of) words, phrases, constructions, or even by implicatures or invited inferences (and possibly by textual absences).
- Concepts are traceable in texts primarily via significant syntagmatic (associative) relations (of words/phrases/constructions/meanings) and secondarily via significant paradigmatic (alternate) relations (of words/phrases/constructions/meanings).
- A concept in a given historical moment might not be encapsulated in any observed word, phrase, or construction, but might instead only be observable via a complete set of words, phrases, or constructions in syntagmatic or paradigmatic relation to each other.
It is worth noting however, that concept recognition is particularly difficult (for the automatic processes built into LDNA) because it ordinarily depends upon the level of cultural literacy possessed by a reader. This is a quality which, while we cannot incorporate it as a process, we can take it into account by testing distant reading through close reading.
As well as being encyclopaedic, our approach was also experiential, in that the conceptual structure of early modern discourse is a reflection of the way early modern people experienced the world around them. That discourse presents a particular subjective view of the world with the hierarchical network of preferences which emerges as a network of concepts in discourse. In this way we also assumed a perspectival nature of concept organisation.
Concluding remarks: Testing and tracking conceptual change across time and style
All being well, if we succeeded in visualising the results of an iterative and developing set of procedures to inspect the data from these large corpora, we hoped to be able to discern and locate the emergence of concepts in the universe of early modern English print. A number of questions arose about where and how these would show up.
For instance, following our hypothesis, would we see the cementation of a concept in the persistent co-occurrence in particular contexts of candidate conjuncts (both binomials and alternates), bigrams, and ultimately, ‘keywords’? (e.g. ‘man of business’ → ‘businessman’ in late Modern English newspapers)
And, as part of the notion of context, it is worth considering the role of discourse genre in the emergence of a concept and in conceptual change. For instance, if it is the case that a concept emerges, not as a keyword, but in the form of an association of expressions that functions as a loose paraphrase, is this kind of process more likely to occur in a specific discourse genre than in general discourse? In other words, is it possible that technical or specialist discourses will be the locus of new concepts, concepts which might diffuse gradually into public and more general ones? (e.g. dogma, law, science → newspapers, narrative, etc.)
What we hoped to do was to make our approach manifest and our results visual. For instance, the emergence of a concept might be envisaged as clusters of texts rising up on the terrain representing a certain feature. And the reminder that they might not just gradually change over time, rising and falling across the terrain, but there might instead be islands of certain features that appear in distant time periods, disparate genres, sub-genres. All of that can be identified by the computer, but we have to make sense of it as close readers afterwards.
Divjak, Dagmar & Gries, Stefan Th. (eds). 2012. Frequency effects in language learning and processing (Vol. 1). Berlin: De Gruyter
Geeraerts, Dirk. 2010. Theories of Lexical Semantics. Oxford: OUP.