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Keywords and characters: Desdemona in Othello

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain, focusing on Desdemona, how keywords can identify the ways in which character is constructed linguistically.
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Keywords can be used to capture all kinds of styles. In this talk, we will begin to show their use in identifying the linguistic construction of particular characters. Let’s preview the contents of this talk. First we’ll talk about the limitations of frequency lists. Then we look at a keyword list and explain how it is ordered and what all of the numbers mean. After that will reflect briefly on keywords for the character Desdemona in Othello. Let’s begin by looking at a simple frequency list from Othello for Desdemona. Obviously this is not complete frequency list, just a selection of items. We can see that I is the most frequent word followed by my and do and so on.
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What can we infer from this data? Well not much. We might have something from I and my, indicating perhaps that Desdemona is self-focused. But these words are often frequent in dialogue anyway. Perhaps lord is significant, but it’s difficult to say much more than that. Now let’s look at Desdemona’s keywords. Don’t be frightened by all the numbers, I will explain. The first column 1, 4, 5, et cetera, is a simple rank ordering number. Some numbers have been left out simply to fit the information on the slide. The second column shows lemmas. Remember the lemma is the base form of a word, so the second item sing could include sings, sang, song, and singing.
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The third column, frequency one, shows the frequency of the word in all of Desdemona’s speech. Nine for sing.
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The next column shows normalised or relative frequency per million words. In effect, it’s the proportion of words that frequency accounts for. So the nine words of sing account for the equivalent of 2,640 words in every million if the numbers were scaled to that. Frequency 2 shows the word frequency for all the characters in the play except Desdemona. With another column to the right for normalised frequency. The +/- column tells us if the words are positive or negative keywords all positive here. The last two columns show the two statistics, the log ratio statistic and the log likelihood statistic. The good news is, for our purposes, we don’t need to worry too much about all these specific numbers.
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Programmes typically have default settings that deliver to the user what is worth looking at. Our job and this is where the human is needed is to examine and interpret the results. Let’s briefly do this for Desdemona. Look at Desdemona’s top three keywords et cetera, sing, and willow. Sometimes words are key because they are very frequent in a particular scene. In act four scene three, she sings the willow song, which also contains instructions for actors et cetera. So the occurrences of these keywords are not well dispersed across the play. They are highly localised. Following on from the previous slide, we noticed that I and my are not just frequent items but also key.
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Look towards the bottom of the table, so maybe Desdemona really does have a self focus. The same is true of lord. We might conjecture that my lord is a common collocation in Desdemona’s speech. But we would need to check that. Lord and prithee both hint that the character might show polite deference, alas a mercy would seem to indicate emotional distress. In some, we can see already that the keyword list can help us to begin to build a picture of how language creates character. Let’s wrap up. We have seen that keywords are more informative than frequency lists. We’ve learned how to look at a keyword list. And we get insights into linguistic profiles of characters.
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However, to really understand a list of keywords, we need to do rather more by way of grouping the keywords and examining their use. We will be doing this for Romeo and Juliet in the next talk.

This video-talk, though voiced by Jonathan Culpeper, incorporates the words of Sean Murphy.

As you already know, a statistically-derived keyword is more than the most frequent words. Here, we focus on the character Desdemona in Othello.

A simple list of the most frequent words in Desdemona’s talk does, in fact, reveal something of interest, notably, a preference for first person pronouns (“I” and “my”), perhaps reflecting a self-focus. However, a keyword analysis reveals more by way of detail. It confirms that the first person pronouns are important, as they are also keywords, but reveals other patterns too, for example, that Desdemona has a tendency to express polite deference.

This analysis of Desdemona sets the scene for what we will do more comprehensively in the following video-talk. You will, of course, have opportunities to do this kind of analysis for yourselves (once you have had guidance from Andrew Hardie on how to do it using CQPweb). For now, if you have any reactions or concerns, put them in the comments.

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