Viewing Texts

I have recently been pointed in the direction of corpus linguistics, which I wish I had been made aware of in the first year of my PhD, when grappling with psychiatric texts on the subject of idiocy.

In the course of discovering what corpus linguistics was, and how it could help me, I stumbled across the website Voyant, a web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts.

Running a digitzed text through the tool produces a word cloud, word trends, frequency tables, and much more. It can also put keywords in context, allowing you to navigate through the text and see the wider setting of keyword(s).

Luckily my research is nineteenth century, and lots of texts have been digitized and easily accessible thanks google, and the Hathi Trust.

So I chose three texts that have been identified both by contemporaries and by scholars as key publications, and ran them through Voyant.

This is what I got.

Fletcher Beach The Treatment and Education of Mentally Feeble Children (1895)


William Wotherspoon Ireland On Idiocy and Imbecility  (1877)W W Ireland

George Shuttleworth Mentally Defective Children and their Training (1895) Shuttleworth

The Voyant tool also produces frequency lists, word counts, and word trends.

I was struck by the similarity of words used, and the clear focus being on children. Whilst Beach and Shuttleworth are explicit in their titles that they deal with children, Ireland aims his publication as a general text, yet ‘children’ is very much a central theme in his work.

This is indicative of the wider literature on the subject of idiocy, publications written by those who were dealing with idiot and imbecile children, not adult patients. This influenced the wider literature on the subject, which was primarily produced by, and for, those involved in the management of smaller idiot and imbecile asylums.

Other frequent words that appear across the texts, such as intelligence, education, ordinary, deficiency, development and power (in the sense of abilities and faculties) suggest that the wider perception and understanding of idiocy is related to intellect and function.

Yet it is the quantifiable elements and terms emerging in the word clouds that are interesting. The attention to the physicality of the patients, as suggested by the frequency of the words ‘mouth, head, circulation, condition, teeth, lips, hands, feet’, and their measurements as seen in words such as ‘small, size, large, circumference, and inches.’

Finally, what is most surprising to discover in these word clouds, and the accompanying frequency lists, is the dearth of other terms to discuss idiocy and imbecility.

The latter half of the nineteenth century was a period of intense discussion regarding the classification and definition of idiocy and imbecility. Psychiatrists regularly discussed the classification of idiocy, filling the pages of medical journals with articles and referenced to the various classification schema on offer, with many devising their own.

One of the more infamous of these classification systems was John Langdon Downs ‘Ethnic Classifications’, which included the classification ‘Mongoloid Idiocy’, nowadays known as Down Syndrome, Down’s Syndrome or Trisomy 21 .

Yet as can be seen in the word clouds, idiocy, imbecility, feeble- and weak-minded were the most frequent terms used. It is interesting to note that not one of these texts employs Down’s terminology or classification system, with the word ‘Ethnic’ appearing in Ireland’s text just once, as does the word ‘Mongol’.

The word clouds, and lists, have allowed me to see the texts in a different light, to view them as whole bodies, rather than the individual pages, chapters, or sections that I was concentrating on at any one time. The Voyant tools are not definitive! But for me they have provided a wider view of the texts, to see patterns,  frequency, use, and correspondingly the lack of use, that is extremely useful.

There will be more Voyant themed posts in the near future – stay posted!


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