Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Algorithm makes tongue tree


Compression helps a computer tell Dante from Machiavelli

New computer programme could settle literary debates.

To date, unlike us, computers have struggled to differentiate a page of Jane Austen from one by Jackie Collins. Now researchers in Italy have developed a program that can spot enough subtle differences between two authors’ works to attribute authorship1.

The program can tell a text by Machiavelli from one by Pirandello, Dante or a host of other great Italian writers. It constructed a language tree of the degree of affinity between 50 different tongues. The tree identifies all the main linguistic groups, such as Romance, Celtic, Slavic and so forth and highlights Maltese (an Afro-Asiatic language) and Basque as anomalies.

As well as settling a few literary arguments, the technique might be useful for comparing other information-rich sequences of data. These might include genetic sequences, medical-monitoring measurements and stock-market fluctuations.

Style over substance

Identifying the language of a particular text is generally not hard in itself: one need simply look for the greatest overlap between the words used and those in a reference list for each language. Classifying linguistic styles is altogether more tricky.

One obvious approach is to compare the range and frequency of words in the sample text against reference texts from various candidate authors. That might work for markedly different styles: it would quickly distinguish Shakespeare from Tom Clancy.

But literary scholars often argue furiously about attributions for old texts. The task can become immensely difficult even for those with a great deal of knowledge about the candidate authors’ writing styles.

Clash of symbols

So Dario Benedetto and colleagues at the Universita ’La Sapienza’ in Rome try a different approach. They start from the premise that written language is in the end no more than a string of symbols. It might look rather random, but it is not.

Some groups of characters recur commonly (such as ’the’ in English), and particular authors favour certain constructions and turns of phrase. These can be measured, rather than being reliant on subjective impressions or anecdotal comparisons.

The team begin from the classic insight of telecommunications engineer Claude Shannon in the 1940s that the information content of a message is related to its entropy. Roughly speaking, entropy is a measure of how much redundancy a message contains. It can be defined as the smallest program that will produce the original message as the output.

For a random string of characters, this program would simply specify every character - it would be the same size as the original message. For a string of just A’s, the program could be very concise: ’repeat A’. Most real messages lie somewhere in-between: they can usually be compressed a little without losing significant information. This is the basis of data-compression computer algorithms, used to make ’zip’ files, for instance.

Benedetto and his colleagues borrow the principles of data-compression algorithms to calculate a kind of relative entropy for two different character strings: a measure of how much they differ. This distance between two texts is smaller for two works by the same author than for two works by different authors.


  1. Benedetto, D., Caglioti, E. & Loreto, V. Language trees and zipping. Physical Review Letters, 88, 048702, (2002).

PHILIP BALL | © Nature News Service

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht Green Light for Galaxy Europe
15.03.2018 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau

nachricht Tokyo Tech's six-legged robots get closer to nature
12.03.2018 | Tokyo Institute of Technology

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Wandering greenhouse gas

16.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region

16.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

16.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>