Friday, July 29, 2011

Visualizing Language and Literature

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Language, by its definition, is the attempt to give voice to what the eye perceives. Writers and poets for centuries have carefully weighed the visual appearance of their words. Classic calligraphers and 20th-century modernists have all valued the look of language in presenting their art. Indeed, the fundamental purpose of a stanza or paragraph is to add clarity through organization and structure. Poets such as George Herbert and e.e. cummings took layout a step further in developing "painted" or “concrete” pictorial layouts as their drivers of meaning.

For novelists, design can play an integral role in communicating subtext and point of view, from James Joyce’s Ulysses, which conceives a whole chapter in the style of newspaper headlines, to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, which paints stylized, ever-changing room decors to parallel its idiosyncratic language. One of children's favorite poetic devices, the acrostic, defines itself by visual layout. Asemic writing represents the other pole, where language becomes abstract in favor of artistic design.

In English classes, or in any course that emphasizes word choice, there are many engaging resources to add life to text. These can help reinforce the core concepts of design, literacy, information, and thinking (D-LIT). The visualization tools at Many Eyes, for example, provide great ways to add graphic sense to words. An experiment from IBM, Many Eyes supplies easy-to-use instruments, ranging from bubble charts to pie graphs to scatter plots to network diagrams. The word trees, tag clouds, and phrase nets work particularly well for revealing connections within poetic verses and offering writers' words in new contexts.
Source: Lee Byron
Poetry Visualizations, from Jeff Clark's Neoformix blog, discusses colors and connections that can link related vocabulary. In that vein, Clark created Document Arc Diagrams, which adapts Martin Wattenberg’s musical scales and offers an interactive tool to paint rainbowed connections between repeated words. Clark also refers to Lee Byron’s amazing Children’s Poetry and Limerick Visualization, which displays rhyme, rhythms, alliteration, and homophones in harmonious curves.

Two other resources are Snappy Words and Visual Thesaurus. Snappy Words is a free, online dictionary that reveals connections between vocabulary words and suggests relationships of meaning through pictorial connections. For homework, students are regularly assigned to look up vocab words. Snappy Words supplies definitions but also acts as a graphic thesaurus for writers and a derivative menu for foreign languages. Visual Thesaurus sprouts verbal connections in a similar way, by stemming synonyms in an appealing and practical floral pattern. Also useful from the Thinkmap team is Vocab Grabber, which examines a section of text and displays the frequency, relevance, and color-coded subject of key words in the selection.

Among tools for the iPad and iPod, the Visual Poet app unites words and images in photo collages. On Flickr, poetry visualizations come to life with unique pictures and language. And for experimenting with language and fonts, Type Is Art allows you to manipulate the 21 distinctive parts of letter forms to create art and graphics.

Finally, Literature Map attempts to recommend writers that a person might enjoy. After typing in a name, Literature Map delivers a spatial proximity of similar (and non-similar) authors. The algorithm attempts to produce word clouds, like SpicyNode, Tagul, and others, but the design is somewhat medieval. Each name links to a brief discussion forum about that writer, but ultimately, Literature Map is a thin resource. The graphic interface does not reveal any genuine information and does not yet use its visual tools to enhance understanding along the D-LIT continuum.
Source: Literature Map

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