Linguistic discoveries

Wordcloud showing most frequent words in the Federalist Papers (generated by Voyant Tools)

Have you ever tried to count the number of times you’ve used the word “like” in a conversation? Or put your hand in front of your mouth to feel the puff of air that accompanies the ‘p’ sound in the word “port” (but not in the word “sport”)? You may or may not have wondered about these kinds of things, and you probably haven’t tested them like this unless you’ve taken a linguistics class or have friends who have. When we ask these sorts of questions and carry out mini experiments we raise our linguistic awareness of the speakers and texts around us and of our own language use, something for which Ben Blatt advocates in the introduction of his book: “The analytical approach to writing can be amusing and informative and often downright funny. Moreover, it can teach us about the writers we read every day and the words we use in our own writing” (7). Linguistics is all about taking the analytical approach to not just writing, but all forms of communication, including speaking, gesturing, signing, etc. My relatively short time in the field of linguistics has led me to many discoveries that are, as Blatt puts it, “one half common sense, one half mind-blowing” (27).

What else can we discover about the Federalist Papers if we take a deeper look using tools like Blatt uses? Voyant Tools is a free platform that has a huge number of tools, visualizations, and other fun things that provide insights into all kinds of aspects of a text. I downloaded a plain text file of all the Federalist Papers from Project Gutenberg then uploaded that file into Voyant Tools. Almost instantly you have at your fingertips dozens of counts, frequencies, trends, plots, and other statistics about the text. You can look at wordclouds, like the one above, for a visual representation of the most frequent words in the document. You can also venture into less common visualizations and statistics to learn more about the text. Below are some examples of of interesting visualizations that show trends of words throughout the papers, plus a tool called TextualArc that I frankly don’t understand, but that looks really interesting. Voyant Tools, among other softwares and platforms, is an excellent resource for diving deeper into texts and making discoveries about details that we might not even think to look for.

Frequency of the word “people” throughout the Federalist Papers
Bubblelines plot showing the frequency of “people” (turquoise), “government” (blue), and “power” (purple). The larger the bubble, the more frequent the usage of the word.
TextualArc for the Federalist Papers

Sinclair, S. & G. Rockwell. (2022). Voyant Tools. Retrieved November 17, 2022, from https://voyant-tools.org/?panels=cirrus%2Ctermsberry%2Ctrends%2Cphrases%2Cbubblelines&corpus=91e02d105ecb11013eeb1a6c084498a1

1 Comment

  1. This is super cool! It is crazy that a process that once took an atrocious amount of time (Federalist Paper initial analysis) can now take us minutes. I will have to check out this tool. I also have taken linguistic classes before and it is interesting to learn about the various methods for language analysis.

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