Interfacing Diachrony: Visualizing Linguistic Change on the Basis of Digital Editions of Serbian 18th-Century Texts

  1. 1. Toma Tasovac

    Belgrade Center for Digital Humanities

  2. 2. Natalia Ermolaev

    Library and Information Science - Rutgers University

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Analyzing, indexing and marking-up raw data and providing various types of annotations and metadata, named entities and other contextual information is essential for effective searching and retrieval of cultural heritage content (Borin et al.; Borin et al. 2007; Schreiber et al. 2008; Christopher 2011). With commercial search engines dominating our day-to-day interaction with information and framing our data access with non-transparent page-ranking mechanisms, it is especially important for institutions of learning and cultural preservation to use available technologies to encourage meaningful and profound engagement with digital content. In this respect, the interface must not only function as the frame for direct access and data retrieval, but also as the platform for the user’s cognitive, aesthetic and performative interaction with digital objects as such. DH projects, however, often approach interface design in a haphazard way, more as an afterthought than as an essential system component (Warwick et al. 2008). They also tend to be dominated by task-oriented and efficiency-driven paradigms of machine engineering that disregard the performative nature of the interface as a reading space (Drucker 2011a, 2011b).
Ongoing research in digital humanities, human-computer interaction and interface design is focusing on ways to explore textual data by visualizing relations between different sets of data and identifying patterns such as word trends, named entities, collocations etc. (Bederson & Schneiderman 2003; Unsworth 2005; Don et al. 2007; Fry 2007; Greengrass & Hughes 2008; Rockwell et al. 2010). Collins (2010) has explored interactive interfaces that provide direct access to both the online natural language processes, such as statistical translation, keyword detection, and parsing, and the outcomes of sophisticated linguistic analysis. So far, however, no attempts have been made to visually link the user’s subjective experience of archaic texts with a graphic representation of diachronic changes in language. In this paper, we describe our design and development of an interface for representing and highlighting linguistic change on the basis of our annotated digital editions of Serbian 18th-century literary texts (Tasovac & Ermolaev 2011). We treat the interface not only as a dynamic framework for engaging with the text, but also as a ‘provocation to cognitive experience’ (Drucker 2011a: 9).
Unlike many European languages, which underwent relatively uninterrupted linguistic and cultural evolutions, the modern Serbian literary language, as codified by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić in the 19th century, was largely based on the vernacular of his time and had little in common with the literary standards of the previous epoch (Ивић 1990). As a consequence of this radical caesura, 18th-century texts pose a formidable challenge to the modern reader who is unaccustomed to these archaic (Old Church Slavonic) and foreign (largely Russian) imprints (Albin 1970). That is why the Digital Library of Serbian Cultural Heritage of the 18th Century – a joint project of the Belgrade Center for Digital Humanities and the National Library of Serbia – employs a host of mark-up and annotating strategies to make these texts more accessible. The texts are encoded as a word-aligned corpus of TEI XML documents in two versions: one using traditional 18th-century orthography, including the graphemes that have since disappeared from Serbian, and one using modernized and standardized Serbian spelling that increases the legibility and, to a certain degree, searchability of these texts for modern users. Furthermore, the corpus contains lexical and semantic annotations that introduce a large number of modern-day equivalents to the largely archaic vocabulary of the corpus, as shown in the following table:
Original orthography Modernized orthography Modern-day equivalent Type of change
богъ бог бог orthographic
любовъ љубов љубав phonetic
утѣшенїе утешеније утеха morphological
благодѣтель благодетељ доброчинитељ lexical
любезница љубезница драга особа (женског пола) conceptual (term no longer lexicalized)
By applying basic techniques of cross-lingual information retrieval to a historical dimension of one language, and making provisions for multiple indexing and annotations, our project exposes a notoriously difficult chapter in the development of the Serbian language to a wider audience, without sacrificing the edition’s scholarly potential. The user can search the corpus not only using modern standardized spelling, but also the above-mentioned range of modern-day equivalents. This type of extended search, which results in a larger pool of data than a search based on original, non-standardized orthographic forms alone, has the potential of radically opening up the text for the modern reader and leading to discoveries of previously unnoticed thematic similarities and correspondences across different works and authors.
The interface is built dynamically using XQuery and advanced JavaScript on top of the TEI XML files which are stored in the eXist database. We offer three basic views of the text: a static view, a user-driven dynamic view, and the system-driven dynamic view. The static view is the most basic: the user can choose to read the text in either the original orthography (OO) or its modernized version (MO). In either version, each word is also a hyperlink: clicking on a word reveals a pop-up window which lists the form of the corresponding orthographic version as well as the lexical or semantic annotation , when appropriate. In the static view, the user can also choose to juxtapose (place side by side), interpolate (view line by line) or superimpose (merge and differentiate by means of color) the two orthographic versions of the text.
The user-driven dynamic view stresses the evolution of linguistic change: it allows the reader to treat the original 18th-century text as a temporal snapshot – a frozen expression of a certain time and age – that can be, using the familiar UI device (slider) ‘updated’ (or ‘fast-forwarded’) to its other more modern linguistic forms. The stages of transformation include: modernized spelling that keeps the linguistic peculiarities of the original, phonetic changes morphological changes, lexical changes and, finally, conceptual reformulations. Each stage of transformation can be viewed separately or in combination with others. And each change takes place inside the text by means of in-line animated transformations of individual word forms.
Finally, the system-driven dynamic view is the most experimental: it creates a unique reading environment in which annotated words change their linguistic form in-line, but each at its own, randomly assigned speed. In this playful space, the linear reading act becomes predicated upon a chance encounter with a traditional or modern form, an exercise in Benjaminian translation (Benjamin 1972) where the site of alterity (in our case temporal alterity) quite literally (and never in quite the same sequence of transformations) disturbs the text’s imaginary stability. Reading becomes a performance in which the reader is performing the text, and vice versa.
By providing these various visual interfaces in our Digital Library of Serbian Cultural Heritage of the 18th Century, we address for the first time in the framework of visual DH, the subjective perspective of the reader’s process of decoding archaic language. We treat the linguistic expression of the 18th-century Serbian culture not as a stable and self-evident entity, but as a locus of meaning that can (and should) be transformed by the reader. While the interface provides access to systematic linguistic, cultural and historical annotations, it also creates an opportunity for playful interaction with the text as a space of linguistic and cultural mutability.
The more possibilities at a user’s disposal to engage with a digital cultural heritage object, the greater its impact will be at the levels of both individual and institutional experience. The framework of the Digital Library of Serbian 18th-Century Texts can serve as a model for other smaller, lesser-resourced languages struggling with the quest to keep their cultural heritage alive after historical ruptures, linguistic caesuras, changes of alphabet etc.
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Conference Info


ADHO - 2012
"Digital Diversity: Cultures, languages and methods"

Hosted at Universität Hamburg (University of Hamburg)

Hamburg, Germany

July 16, 2012 - July 22, 2012

196 works by 477 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (7)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None