Research News

Evolving web tool illuminates classic Greek, Latin texts

Greek engraving.


Published July 16, 2015

Neil Coffee.
“Ancient authors were in deep communication with their predecessors, borrowing, reworking and referencing language in ways that contributed to the substance to their creations. If you’re cut off from what they’re referencing … you’re going to miss a lot of what the texts meant.”
Neil Coffee, associate professor
Department of Classics

If episodes of the Simpsons survive for hundreds of years, those viewers in the distant future unfamiliar with the show’s early 21st-century references would miss most of the humor, says Neil Coffee, an associate professor in the Department of Classics.

Though Coffee doesn’t include Homer Simpson lessons alongside those of Homer’s “Odyssey,” his point about context relates directly to a web tool called Tesserae, an innovative and evolving project Coffee started in 2008 with Jean-Pierre Koenig, chair of UB’s linguistics department.

Tesserae, which takes its name from the individual tiles that comprise a larger mosaic, searches for references and parallels in the classics to help scholars make connections that lend additional meaning to the text.

“Classicists and literary scholars have always tried to bring out the full meaning of texts by uncovering the relationships among them that create artistic effects, show affiliations and make up literary history,” says Coffee. “The idea for Tesserae was to use digital tools to trace these relationships comprehensively at the micro level, to trace the inheritance of words, phrases and ideas.”

Tesserae is especially valuable for research involving ancient Greek and Latin texts that often followed an artisan model that had authors working in the traditions of their predecessors.

“Ancient authors were in deep communication with their predecessors, borrowing, reworking and referencing language in ways that contributed to the substance to their creations,” says Coffee “If you’re cut off from what they’re referencing — like the future viewers of the Simpsons — you’re going to miss a lot of what the texts meant.”

But Tesserae is not simply a search engine and it differs profoundly from most approaches to the problem of locating textual similarities.

It is an automatic search, not an individual-directed search.

Since Tesserae doesn’t require users to input specific words or text strings, it doesn’t have a search target.

Users instead choose to compare two or more texts, and the website provides a list of all that the given text-A might have in common with the given text-B.

These similarities can be more subtle than exact quotation. In the pilot English search on the site, for example, the word "happy” in one text would match “happiness” in another.

The results are often beyond what reader could have imagined.

Coffee points to instances where the Roman poet Vergil borrowed phrases from his predecessor Catullus and says that recognizing these moments takes readers from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional experience because now they can read Vergil along the axis of Catullus’ inspiration.

“In one case, we found that the Latin poet Lucan tended to allude to his great predecessor Vergil at the beginnings and endings of chapters and scenes. Modern readers, at least, seem to pay closer attention at these end points. So it appears that Lucan was trying to bolster his authority and impress his audience right when their attention was greatest.”

The project continues to mature.

“This month we plan to roll out a feature that allows users to compare Greek and Latin texts,” Coffee says. “This means that they will be able to find similarities of language and thought across the two languages, such as when the Latin epic poet Vergil borrows from or refers to the Greek epic poet Homer. Cross-language matching is a new frontier for this kind of literary study and we’re hoping that we and others can work toward searching across multiple languages.”

Coffee is in discussions with other project groups in the digital humanities to access their text repositories and so expand the set of texts Tesserae can search.

He says he wants Tesserae to keep improving to help the study of the humanities at large, before stopping to rephrase his thought, saying “in our next phase, we want to make one little advance for Tesserae, to help with a major development in research.” He rephrases a second time, saying, with more flare than before, “This should be one small step for Tesserae, contributing to one giant leap in scholarship.”

His retakes on the expression are meant to illustrate the complexity of intertextual searching and how it can glide across language into sound, emphasis, meaning and placement.

“The question is, at what point in those three ways of saying the same thing did you realize the reference to Neil Armstrong?”

All of these subtleties could conceivably be built into Tesserae, even across languages.

The result could illustrate the development of thought, tracking stages of an idea’s growth as if it were a maturing cell.

“Say a student wanted to study the concept of citizenship from Athens to the founding of the United States,” Coffee says. “This is much more complex that isolating a word for ‘citizen’ since it requires finding paraphrases and associated concepts and tracing them from the Greek, through Latin, through the vernacular languages, into English and down to Thomas Jefferson.”

Such a search would produce a map of what citizenship has meant to the Western world from antiquity to the dawn of American independence.

“The Tesserae site is already in use by over 6,000 scholars and students around the world, primarily in North America and Europe. But the digital tracing of intertextuality is still a fairly open field of research, with a lot of work to be done,” says Coffee.