Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Mechanical Philologist

I'm surprised it took this long.

Finally, the principles of bioinformatics have been applied to philology (the study of/love of words). The software used to make gene trees can be applied to word trees. Here's a news article on it and here is the original Proceedings of the NAS article.

This makes perfect sense because both words and genes are "made of letters." Words are like genes, and genes are like words. There is a deep poetry at the heart of life. Computers are good at analyzing genes, so (with the help of an ear or two) they should also be good at analyzing words.

Once again my mind turns to the anti-mechanism philologist, Owen Barfield. What would he say to this? Would he welcome this pattern-finding algorithm? Or would he insist that, rather than gathering a little more hidden info, this overlooks the most important part of words, the inner revelation and subjective experience?

Not being able to ask him right now, I can only look at the results with a Barfieldian eye, asking, how does the development of genes parallel the development of words? I think he'd at least welcome the idea that there are significant parallels between the two evolutions, and here's a program that may be able to capture them.

3 comments:

unkleE said...

Unfortunately, the first link doesn't work for me. Is it fixable?

BenMc said...

Hmmm .. they're both working for me and I don't see anything obviously broken. The PDF of the article is available at this link, maybe it will work:
http://www.pnas.org/content/110/11/4224.full.pdf+html

Failing that, google the article title:
Automated reconstruction of ancient languages using
probabilistic models of sound change

BenMc said...

Oh, and Google this for the first article, which is what you were actually asking about!:
A Computer Program Uncovers The Evolutionary History Of Words