Monday, November 12, 2012

Text Mining: Two Short Stories By Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Often times, there is a major emphasis placed on the ideological differences between Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. In some respects, the tendency to highlight their differences overshadows their similarities. Besides, perhaps their writings have more in common than accounts of the differences imply.

I recently decided to focus on what the writers had in common specifically concentrating on how they used language in their short stories. To aid in my investigation, I used the text-mining program Voyant to analyze Hurston’s “Sweat” (1926) and Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1938). Voyant is a free text analysis program that allows its users to sift through digitized texts and pinpoint similarities and differences among a number of texts.

Hurston and Wright both utilized African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in their short stories as a distinguishing characteristic of their characters.  For the purposes of this study, I performed a cursory glance of recurring words or phrases used by both writers in order to identify similarities. Their common word is suggestive about some of their commonalities. 

Voyant reveals that a shared word between the two writers was “ah” having been used 67 times in “Sweat” and 68 times in “Big Boy Leaves Home.” The uses of “Ah” in the stories were used to denote “I.” Hurston and Wright apparently sought to offer a more accurate representation of the sound of black southerners saying “I” through the use of “Ah.”  

Both stories are narrated in third person omniscient. “Ah” is most commonly used by the main characters within the text to reveal their inner feelings to other characters within the story. For instance, in “Sweat” at one point, the protagonist Delia says “Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin' in washin' for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat” to her husband Sykes.  In “Big Boy Leaves Home,” Wright’s lead character Big Boy says “Ah kin feel the ol sun goin all thu me” to his friends as they are lying down in a field and relaxing.   

My brief analysis highlighted frequent uses of “Ah” and several other words, including “wuz,” “dat,” and whut” by both writers. Voyant made it possible to quickly quantify the specific number of times common words were presented in each story. As a result, despite any other differences between Hurston and Wright, a picture of the writers’ linguistic and stylistic similarities began to emerge.       

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