Juzek, Tom; Krielke, Marie-Pauline; Teich, Elke

Exploring diachronic syntactic shifts with dependency length: the case of scientific English

Proceedings of the Fourth Workshop on Universal Dependencies (UDW 2020), Association for Computational Linguistics, pp. 109-119, Barcelona, Spain (Online), 2020.

We report on an application of universal dependencies for the study of diachronic shifts in syntactic usage patterns. Our focus is on the evolution of Scientific English in the Late Modern English period (ca. 1700-1900). Our data set is the Royal Society Corpus (RSC), comprising the full set of publications of the Royal Society of London between 1665 and 1996. Our starting assumption is that over time, Scientific English develops specific syntactic choice preferences that increase efficiency in (expert-to-expert) communication. The specific hypothesis we pursue in this paper is that changing syntactic choice preferences lead to greater dependency locality/dependency length minimization, which is associated with positive effects for the efficiency of human as well as computational linguistic processing. As a basis for our measurements, we parsed the RSC using Stanford CoreNLP. Overall, we observe a decrease in dependency length, with long dependency structures becoming less frequent and short dependency structures becoming more frequent over time, notably pertaining to the nominal phrase, thus marking an overall push towards greater communicative efficiency.