Linguistic forms are essential to meaning: like words, they make a semantic contribution to the things we say. We inherit them from past writers and speakers and fill them with different words to produce novel utterances. They shape us and the ways we interpret the world. Yet prevalent assumptions about language and the constraints of print-finding tools have kept linguistic forms and their histories hidden from view.
Drawing on recent work in cognitive and construction grammar along with tools and methods developed by corpus and computational linguists, Daniel Shore’s Cyberformalism represents a new way forward for digital humanities scholars seeking to understand the textual past. Championing a qualitative approach to digital archives, Shore uses the abstract pattern-matching capacities of search engines to explore precisely those combinatory aspects of language—word order, syntax, categorization—discarded by the “bag of words” quantitative methods that are dominant in the digital humanities.
While scholars across the humanities have long explored the histories of words and phrases, Shore argues that increasingly sophisticated search tools coupled with growing full-text digital archives make it newly possible to study the histories of linguistic forms. In so doing, Shore challenges a range of received metanarratives and complicates some of the most basic concepts of literary study. Touching on canonical works by Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Kant, even as it takes the full diversity of digitized texts as its purview, Cyberformalism asks scholars of literature, history, and culture to revise nothing less than their understanding of the linguistic sign.