Words on Trial

This is a fantastic story called “Words on Trial” in The New Yorker magazine. It deals with linguistics and solving crimes via database modeling and analysis.

I was fascinated by it, as in 1976 I worked on a thesis in college trying to prove when a certain work of Ernest Hemingway was truly written. We used a main frame computer and we created a database with the first 5000 words of writings from 10 books in Hemingway’s career. We then typed in ” The Old Man and the Sea” as a control. We then created measures such as pronoun references, words per sentence, sentences per paragraph, active pronoun usage, historical references, punctuation marks and usage and related other measures.

We then asked the computer, based on all of this information: when was “The Old Man and the Sea” really written? The answer surprised us all – and it pointed at the possibility that Hemingway wrote a story as a journalist in the 1930s and then brought it out and freshened it up and published it in the early 50s.

I am proud to say it was one of the first times ever that a computer was used in a liberal arts exercise and it was how I was introduced to technology. I did all of the data entry to boot in the Registrar’s office late at night to get the database created. We used a freelance computer programmer and a graduate student in linguistics to help and serve on the team. It was a prehistoric effort but innovative for its time.

Now see what is being done with linguistics and computers, 35 plus years later to solve murder cases in a very similar fashion. This is a great read. Enjoy.


Ted Leonsis

Ted Leonsis is a nationally renowned entrepreneur, investor, and business-builder. He sits on the board of directors of several leading companies ranging from American Express to Groupon.

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