50 Years of Digital in the College of Arts

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There are some truly first class research projects within the College of Arts that have a sizable digital component and Arts researchers have been engaging with digital technologies for a long time – a quite surprisingly long time, in fact. The earliest digital research project in the College that we know of took place way back in 1964 and involved researchers in English Literature who used a mainframe computer belonging to the Department of Chemistry to create a concordance of the works of William Shakespeare, so the notion of ‘digital’ within the College is by no means a new phenomenon.

The Historical Thesaurus of English
The Historical Thesaurus of English

A project that quite nicely demonstrates the importance of digital technologies within the college is the Historical Thesaurus of English, which began cataloguing the uses of English words over time in the 1960s and ran for an extraordinary 44 years. When it began, researchers filled rooms with papers slips listing words, dates and categories. These were replaced by a digital database in the late 1970s and the project’s data has been migrated to new technology over the years since then.

The project was published in print in 2009 as the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, and we also developed an online version of the resource that is hosted at Glasgow, which launched in 2013 (you can access it here). This version contains almost 800,000 words grouped into almost 230,000 semantic categories.   The resource has a great many potential audiences, not just academics but also (for example) screenwriters or authors of historical novels who need to check when a word was used in a particular sense, and what other words were also used to mean the same thing at a particular point in time.

Although the Historical Thesaurus project has officially ended, digital research based on the project’s data is still very much ongoing in the College and there are two large AHRC funded projects underway that are using its data.

The Mapping Metaphor project is identifying when and how semantic categories have had a metaphorical connection, so for example when terms for ‘heat’ have a metaphorical connection to terms for ‘anger’, like when we say someone is ‘fuming’. Around 20,000 such connections have been identified by the project and we’re creating a series of interactive visualisations that allow you to navigate through them.

The SAMUELS project is creating an automated semantic tagger based on the Historical Thesaurus data. Using the tool, you can supply a block of text and the tool will automatically tag each word with its precise meaning, automatically disambiguating between different possible meanings. For example, the word ‘strike’ has more than 200 different meanings as catalogued in the Historical Thesaurus and based on the context of the word, the tool can identify the correct one.

Both of these projects have a lot of potential uses beyond academia and we’re already developing a follow-on project for Mapping Metaphor that will investigate how the visualisations can be used to help teach the concept of metaphor in schools.

One of the external organisations we’ve had a very positive relationship with recently is Scottish Language Dictionaries Limited, who is the compiler of a number of dictionaries of Scots. In collaboration with Scottish Language Dictionaries we developed a new Dictionary of the Scots Language online resource, which is hosted at Glasgow and was launched very successfully in September 2014. This dictionary features more than 77,000 entries and the online version is proving to be very popular. We have also recently created a Scots Dictionary for Schools app with Scottish Language Dictionaries, which is freely available on the Apple App store and the Google Play store. The app is primarily aimed at children who are studying Scots at school but can be used by anyone who has an interest in Scots words.

There’s a real wealth of projects within the College that use innovative digital technologies and we’ve created a website that showcases these. Visit the Digital Humanities Network to find out more about our digital projects and the people who have contributed to them.


Text by Brian Aitken, Research Officer, English Language.

View Brian’s related YouTube video

Learn more about Digital or discuss developing a partnership with the College of Arts with Dr Fraser Rowan the College of Arts Business Development manager by email or phone (0141 330 3885).


Post Author: Fraser Rowan

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