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Journal Article

Operationalizing the colloquial style: Repetition in 19th-century American fiction


Gemma,  Marissa Lynn
Department of Language and Literature, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;

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Gemma, M. L., Glorieux, F., & Ganascia, J.-G. (2017). Operationalizing the colloquial style: Repetition in 19th-century American fiction. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 32(2), 312-335. doi:10.1093/llc/fqv066.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0004-7953-7
Historians of the English language and students of literary style alike have long agreed that a key change took place in American prose style at the end of the late 19th century, when a more informal, ‘democratic' register came to dominate fictional prose. However, despite its historical and critical importance, neither the features nor the precise historical development of this shift has been the subject of systematic analysis. In this essay, we undertake an in-depth analysis of one key feature of what became known as the colloquial style: patterns of linguistic repetition. With the aid of quantitative analysis, we demonstrate that the use of repetition is in itself a reliable metric for automatically detecting the presence of colloquial discourse. We find that colloquial repetition does indeed increase in American fiction over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, but, via comparative analysis, that this phenomenon may not be limited to American prose. Finally, we explore the semantics of these patterns of repetition, demonstrating first that repetition is broadly characteristic of represented speech in writing, and secondly that changes over time in the semantic contents of repetitions demonstrate a clear increase in colloquial, informal language.