Barbara McGillivray

Shifts in language, usage and culture: how can computational methods help us study word meaning variation and change?

Over time, new words enter the language, others become obsolete, and existing words acquire new meanings. A classic example is the English verb follow, which in recent years acquired the sense of tracking a person or a group by subscribing to their account on social media. The recent digitization efforts have now made it possible to access and mine large digital collections of historical texts using automatic methods and investigate the question of semantic change at a scale unseen before.

In this talk I will present my recent research on developing computational models for word meaning (semantic) change in historical texts. I will share my experience of working at different scales and in a range of interdisciplinary projects using digitised historical text collections such as the Darwin correspondence project and born-digital archives such as the UK web archive and Twitter. I will take the opportunity to discuss the opportunities and limitations that these methods present and how they can be fruitfully embedded in digital humanities scholarship.

Barbara McGillivray is lecturer in digital humanities and cultural computation at King’s College London and Turing fellow at The Alan Turing Institute, where she runs the Data Science and Digital Humanities special interest group. She holds a degree in Mathematics and one in Classics from the University of Firenze (Italy), and a PhD in Computational Linguistics from the University of Pisa (2010).

Her current research focusses on computational models of meaning and conceptual change in historical and contemporary texts and she is Co-Investigator of the Living with Machines project. She is also very interested in supporting open data in Humanities research and has been editor-in-chief of the Journal of Open Humanities Data since 2019. Her most recent book is Applying Language Technology in Humanities Research. Design, Application, and the Underlying Logic (co-authored with Gábor Mihály Tóth, Palgrave Macmillan 2020).