CHWP B.3 McCarty, "Implicit Patterns in Ovid's Metamorphoses"

7. Sound and wordplay

Amongst the literary phenomena hardest for humans to detect consistently over a large amount of text are the least rational and perhaps most common of poetic devices: sound and wordplay. Few of us can remain undistracted by the sense of the text long enough to pay attention to the subliminal messages, and even if we do, how do we represent them?

In the early 18th century Alexander Pope noted that sound can be an echo to the sense, but it can also undermine apparent sense. In figure 19, as an exercise for the reader, I give three passages with significant repetition of sound. The second and third have quite similar incantory passages -- one about the labyrinth, the other about Circe's magic spell -- in which sound indeed echoes sense. In the first passage the infatuated god's obsession is as much or more represented in the repetitions as in the surface meaning.

7.1. 'Similar' words

In figure 20 I have used the TACT "simil" operator, which is based on a pattern-recognition algorithm,[17] to calculate selected degrees of similarity between each of the two words in the phrase imagine vocis (lit. 'by the image of [her] voice') and the passage in which they are found. By tying the results to size of type in the printout, I attempt to suggest visually how the echoing of the targeted phrase throughout the surrounding text might be determined.

Note, however, that the "simil" algorithm is limited in what it can detect: it is based solely on repetitions of individual letters, and considers all letters the same, taking no account of differences between vowels and consonants or within groups of related sounds (dental, labial, palatal, etc.). Furthermore, we have no way to measure the density of repetition it does detect against what is common for the poem, author, genre, or language in question. It is therefore difficult to know how to interpret the results. The difficulties are not in principle insuperable, however.

7.2. Anagrams

Another attempt to detect verbal repetition is represented partially in figure 21 and figure 22. It begins with a recent and still unofficial program in the TACT system, an anagram-finder appropriately called Anagrams. Running the program on the Metamorphoses yields over 1400 exact anagrams, but only a few of these are close enough to each other to form significant pairs.[18]

Amongst these are the pairs et/te ('and / [to,for] you') and ut/tu ('so that / you') -- seemingly a trivial case. Assuming the contrary, however, I used the proximity operator in TACT to locate all such pairs in which the words were five or fewer lines apart, then charted their distribution across books 1 to 6. As figure 21 shows, an unusually high concentration of the pairs occurs in the story of Phaethon. In figure 22 et, te, ut, tu and the semantically related forms tui and tibi are highlighted as they occur in a short passage from that story together with the corresponding letter sequences within other words of the text. The distinction between these sequences as independent words and as parts of other words is shown by underlining.

The possible significance of the results, which suggest a kind of accusatory murmur, may be indicated by the action of the story. In it Phoebus, the sun-god, attempts to convince Phaethon not to drive the sun-chariot -- a privilege Phoebus had foolishly granted him as proof of paternity. Throughout a large part of the story, including the quoted passage, Phoebus describes the horrors Phaethon will encounter, with the question (both expressed and implied), 'And what will you do about this?' Thus an accusatory murmur in the subtext serves the narrative very well. Since we are concerned with a subliminal message, we are justified in considering mere letter sequences as well as the corresponding words.

Again, however, we do not know precisely how unusual the repetition is.

7.3. Unspecified repetitions

CollGen and Anagrams represent a step towards a more general pattern-recognition device in that they find correspondences without our having to specify a pattern or exemplar beforehand. Likewise, we can imagine how the "simil" or other such operator might compute the density of repetition, however that is defined.[19] Once we had an accurate notion of the density of repetition, we could then easily locate unusual passages within a text, or unusual texts within a tradition, and study the relationship between sound and sense more precisely than has been possible before.

The literary problem of what we mean by 'repetition' remains in the shadows. The possibility of defining it exactly and obtaining useful results on a major scale could, however, be a mighty stimulus to research.

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[17] This is the Ratcliff/Obershelp algorithm, described in John W. Ratcliffe and David E. Metzener, "Pattern Matching: The Gestalt Approach", Dr. Dobb's Journal (July 1988): 46-51.

[18] Anagrams also is able to detect 'partial anagrams', i.e. words formed out of some of the letters of other words. The number of these is so great, however, that I have not yet been able to explore the verbal patterns they may reveal.

[19] For example, an elaboration of "simil", working on a TACT database, might take each word within a given span, calculate its similarity to each of the other words, averaging the results (perhaps weighting the average as a function of distance between words), and attach the resulting quantity to the position in the text. Then density could be displayed for any given unit of the text, e.g. line, stanza, narrative entity.