Digital Language. Linguistics, Communication Research, and Poetics in the Early Information Age

Conceived as a cross-disciplinary contribution to the fields of media studies, literary history, and the history of science, this research project explores the interrelations between natural language and concepts of the digital that emerged in linguistic research, cybernetics, information theory, and poetics of the 1950s and 1960s. Up until now, this early, formative phase of the information age has been examined predominantly with a focus on the technical development of the first mainframe computers and software programs, which gave rise to the digital in the form of numerically coded, electronically processed data. My project, by contrast, shifts attention to another, more general understanding of digital communication that evolved during the postwar period—an understanding that exceeded the machine-based, mathematical ‘computing’ of information, and which became manifest especially in new analytical approaches to spoken and written language. The project focuses, therefore, on a wide range of theories, research designs, experimental practices and writing strategies that served to (re)consider natural language as a digital medium in its own right, and to conceive both speech and alphabetic script as ‘coding’ systems that turn out to share some basic structural features with the artificial languages of computer programming. By investigating these notions of ‘digital language’ in terms of their material conditions, institutional contexts, and cultural functions, my analysis aims to show how the early information age fostered also a significant rethinking of older means of information-processing, in ways that have gone largely unheeded by seminal approaches to the history of digital culture and ‘new media.’

The project is divided into three main sections. The first part focuses on the path-breaking works of the ‘linguistics group’ that was instituted at MIT around 1950, under the guidance of scholars like Morris Halle and Roman Jakobson. Tracing the interdisciplinary exchanges among linguists, engineers, mathematicians, and communication theorists that took shape in this setting, the chapter shows how scholars theoretically reinterpreted—and technologically applied—the principles of Saussurean linguistics, while also drawing on new models of information transmission and statistical language analysis (e.g., Claude Shannon, Benoît Mandelbrot). This methodological convergence between Structuralism and novel brands of communication research materialized, for instance, in attempts to measure the ‘information value’ of individual utterances in the quantitative form of ‘bits,’ or to parse the structural laws of entire natural language systems, resp. ‘codes,’ by means of stochastic procedures.

The project’s second part examines the reception, continuation, and expansion of these approaches in the work of German language-scientists and philosophers of science like Werner Meyer-Eppler and Max Bense, who were among the first to introduce information-theoretical frameworks into the domain of textual, and more specifically literary, analysis. The aim is to demonstrate how their pioneering studies—devoted to the average letter distribution in printed texts, for example, or to the amount of verbal ‘entropy’ in particular poetic works—treated (written) language as an inherently digital system of communication: one that ‘encodes’ information through the selection and combination of discrete units such as alphabetic characters, syllables, or words. Beyond the methodological aspect, however, these endeavors are significant also because of their distinctly political implications in a postwar context; for the project of digital language-analysis was closely associated with the more general aspiration of advancing new—and ostensibly non-ideological—forms of communicative ‘rationality,’ both within academia and in society at large.

The third part of the project, finally, explores the ways in which digital aspects of natural language first entered into the focus of literary practice, via the textual strategies of Concrete Poetry that took shape over the 1950s and 1960s. On the one hand, the goal is to reveal how the poetic production of a broad and international array of writers—from the Noigandres poets in Brazil, to various European groups (Stuttgart, Darmstadt, Vienna), to representatives of Concretism in Canada and the US—built on concurrent trends in linguistics, cybernetics, and communication theory. On the other hand, the goal is to render visible where and how specific literary strategies of ‘digital writing’—geared towards exposing the discreteness and differential interrelatedness of linguistic signs—conversely left their mark on scientific models of language-analysis for which they served as inspiration, example, or analytic object.

Though largely neglected by previous scholarship, all these notions of ‘digital language’ deserve close analysis for a variety of reasons. First, they offer insight into the broader epistemic conditions under which the concept of the digital initially became an object (and tool) of scientific, media theoretical, and literary reflection. Second, they afford an especially illuminating case study of the ways in which old media can (be taken to) reveal previously unrecognized characteristics in light of the advent of new(er) media. Third, these notions exemplify how the distinction between digital and analog forms of information—a distinction widely used today but seldom scrutinized in terms of its own history—underwent variable and shifting definitions from the early 1950s onwards. By examining debates of the postwar era, the research project therefore also contributes to a critical reevaluation of categories that remain central to present discourses on technology, communication, and the transformation of knowledge.

 

Fig. above: Werner Meyer-Eppler, Grundlagen und Anwendungen der Informationstheorie. Berlin: Springer 1959, p. 312.

2021–2026
Head researcher(s): Tobias Wilke

Publications

Tobias Wilke