The University of Newcastle, Australia

Comparing the language of disaster from history and the modern day

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Early modern literary historian and digital humanities researcher with the Centre for 21st Century HumanitiesDr Erin McCarthy is leading a new project that will compare and contrast the language used to describe early modern disasters and contemporary disasters such as the recent bushfires that ravaged the east coast of Australia in 2019.

Great fire of London
Great fire of London. Image: Wikipedia.

The project will compare historical and modern day accounts of environmental crisis by applying digital methods, including n-grams, topic modelling, and sentiment analysis, to identify broader patterns and trends.

The idea for the project was sparked during the Knowledge Frontiers Forum which was held in Brisbane during the time of the Queensland bushfires in late 2019.

“Forum participants were literally confronted with smoke from the Queensland bushfires from their tenth-floor urban vista in Brisbane. Discussions repeatedly drifted to the ‘new normal’ and impending disaster that this smoke seemed to signal. This research takes a long view to situate these views in their historical context,” Erin said.

Some of the questions the project seeks to answer include:

  • Did seventeenth-century Londoners share our fears as they watched their city burn? How did they describe and react to what they saw in their published writings?
  • How did their languages of emotion and smoke and pollution differ from contemporary languages?

This collaborative, interdisciplinary work applies machine learning and natural language processing techniques the Early English Books Online/Textual Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) corpus, which comprises a full-text database of nearly 70,000 texts printed between 1473 and 1700.

Erin said bringing historical, literary critical, and bibliographical insights to bear on this broad cross-section of early modern texts will lead to a fuller understanding of public understandings of and opinions about environmental crisis.

“This research will also inform a case study comparing language about climate change, natural catastrophe, and apocalypse in accounts of the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the unusually fierce Australian bushfires of 2019. The account of contemporary events will be based, in the first instance, on a collection of tweets scraped from the microblogging site Twitter.”

By comparing early modern and contemporary ideas, the investigators seek to understand widespread perceptions of climate-related disasters and offer new terms for reframing future discussions.

Following the initial research Erin and her colleague William Tullett from Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom plan to conduct undergraduate digital history workshops in Australia and the UK as well as a postgraduate seminar and presentation in London. They also hope to write two journal articles to share their findings.

“Because climate change and environmental disaster are among the most pressing challenges of our time, the outputs of the project are planned to maximise impact and reach academics, students, and the wider public.”


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