Rewriting the history of the English language

Using digital tools to analyze everything from Shakespeare to Twitter

Understanding the techniques that make language effective is essential to creating memorable literature and communications. At the University of Calgary’s Augmented Criticism Lab, Michael Ullyot is using a computer algorithm to detect and analyze rhetorical devices—that is, words or techniques used in specific ways to evoke an emotion in a reader or audience.

The SSHRC-funded Augmented Criticism Lab has automated the process of gathering evidence from a wide range of books and other material (including tweets), greatly accelerating what would be an otherwise painstaking process of identifying, listing and organizing rhetorical phrases.

Through this research, Ullyot and his team are learning when and where these devices first entered the English language, how they moved through society and how they’ve evolved over time—giving us a much better understanding of the history of our language.