John Burrows Award


The John Burrows award has been especially created for the best student or early career researcher paper presented at the next aaDH Digital Humanities Australasia conference in 2016. So named, its creation also acknowledges an internationally renowned pioneer in the application of computing to the analysis of style. Professor Emeritus John Burrows is the founder and remains the doyen of computational stylistics, where he has made remarkable contributions to theory and methods in forensic classification and interpretive description.

In the 1980s Burrows combined counts of very common words and Principal Components Analysis, thus founding computational stylistics. Very common words had been used before in stylometrics, notably by Frederick Mosteller and David L. Wallace, but not with any idea that their patterns of use might reveal anything interesting about literary style. PCA was a well-established method in statistics but had not previously been applied to language data. By 1998 Burrows’s combination of very common words and PCA had become ‘the standard first port-of-call for attribution problems,’ in the words of David I. Holmes.

Burrows’s 1987 book Computation into Criticism: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels and an Experiment in Method combined the insights of an exceptionally gifted close reader with the new tools of computational stylistics, in a volume that is still a benchmark for the combination of interpretation and quantitative language study.

His 2001 Busa Award lecture introduced Delta, a simple and highly effective method for finding the ‘least unlikely’ author of a mystery text among a group of candidates. The 2002 article based on this lecture is currently (late 2014) the most cited of all articles in the journal Literary and Linguistic Computing (recently renamed as Digital Scholarship in the Humanities).

A 2007 article introduced two further methods, Zeta, using mid-frequency words characteristic of an author, and Iota, using rare words. This article offers evidence that authorial individuality is evident across the spectrum of word use, from the most common to the most rare. More generally, Burrows’s computational stylistics has shown that language, including literary language, is a probabilistic system, and hence (in Willard McCarty’s words) ‘that the most elusive of cultural qualities behaves in roughly the same way as both the social and natural worlds.’

In recent years Burrows has had a series of very fruitful collaborations with specialists who brought him attribution problems, in poetry and philosophical prose, especially, spanning the seventeenth to the twentieth century, problems he was able to resolve, with all sorts of benefits for the disciplines involved.