Distant reading of literary language

Developing a ­methodology using quotations as an example

Keywords: digital humanities, distant reading, quotations, literary style, formalism

This paper aims to take advantage of modern digital methods to address research topics that, until now, have mostly been subjects of assumption and interpretation based on rather few examples.

More specifically, the purpose of this article is to explore some usage patterns of open quotation as a literary device and its impact on meaning. Open quotation, as defined by the French philosopher François Recanati, is a type of quotation where a string of words in an utterance is marked with quotation marks to imply the presence of multiple or deformed meanings.

Alongside with other stylistic devices like parody, irony and pastiche, open quotation is regarded as a distinctive feature of postmodern literary language, yet it has not been empirically studied. One of the reasons may be the fact that it is difficult to obtain a systematic view of such textual features by means of traditional, i.e., close reading. However, the emergence of digital methods in humanities provide better access to such research problems. In literary studies, application of computational methods is associated with Franco Moretti’s approach of distant reading. However, distant reading does not offer a specific method to solve complex research problems in literary studies. Therefore, the second purpose of this study is to create a suitable methodology to best answer quotation-related research questions.

In studies of Estonian culture, the emergence of postmodern aesthetics has been associated with the collapse of the Soviet system at the end of the 1980s. Therefore, the text corpus of this study consists of 50 Estonian novels published in 1990–2010. All cases of open quotation were extracted and divided into 8 categories based on qualitative features, and then explored in detail.

Implying metalinguistic awareness was identified as the most important function of open quotation. Most commonly, it was used to reveal Soviet era related totalitarian ideologies, judgments and values inherent in language. Another interesting type of quotation previously undescribed in theoretical literature was distinguished: the category of pseudo-quotations aiming to illustrate both animate and inanimate objects by attributing to them an imaginary verbal act. In general, the use of open quotations reflects the decay of a monolithic value system by undermining the possibility of there being only one correct interpretation.

Regarding methodology, computational methods proved to be effective in establishing high-level stylistic patterns. However, the patterns alone remained inconclusive, requiring qualitative analysis to reach meaningful conclusions. This suggests a fruitful way to approach complex research questions in humanities: first, a qualitative hypothesis is transformed into a specific quantitative method; secondly, the obtained results are interpreted qualitatively.


Maarja Helena Meriste (b. 1992), MA, editor of literary magazine Värske Rõhk (Vanemuise 19, 51003 Tartu),