“I know a table when I see one” – DiDip at a Formulaicity conference

From February 7-9 2024, a 2-person delegation of DiDip attended the Formulaic Language in Historical Research and Data Extraction Conference in Amsterdam, hosted by the Huygens Institute for History and Culture of the Netherlands and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, where we presented a paper on detecting arbitration charters.

We had been looking forward to this event for a while as we expected this conference to be a perfect venue to discuss and negotiate both core and surroundings of formulaicity across the many fields dealing with it. With great pleasure we can now look back at well more than a handful of enriching and fun experiences.

While there was clear common ground about what formulaicity pertains to in its form and communicative function, attendees lamented the impossibility of a satisfying universal definition. Nevertheless, a major takeaway was that, regardless of a flawless pinpoint, we can still identify or recognize formulas – especially in our own domains. As per one colleague anecdotally quoting an anonymous formula enthusiast: “I don’t have a good definition of a table, but I know a table when I see one.”

“There are many kinds of tables.”

The diversity in ways of approaching formulaic language as shown across 8 sessions and several discussion rounds was decent, ranging from qualitative studies, to simply counting or distributions of grams and lemmas, and over to understanding and analyzing them in latent space. More importantly, the media of analyses were not limited to charters!

Everybody seemed to find that understanding formulaicity varies between texts and text types. Learning this requires structurally and conceptually zooming in and out of the material. As Timo Korkiakangas more or less suggests: for building a sensible inventory of formulaic items, it is necessary to just leave some stuff out. We reckon that, otherwise, one simply ends up chained by endless cascades of patterns that offer no real finding. To release the shackles, one must put formulaic thresholds arbitrarily.

“It depends on the kind of table.”

Some questions encompassing all presentations where: What is a formula’s history? Where and how do formulas emerge? Do they form greater units? Related to this, presenters mostly assumed breaks of traditions as reflected in the history of their media, their institutions etc.. A core question remains as to which factors we deem most important for the changes we think we observe, and which ones are most worth pursuing.

Most related to DiDip’s work, we highlight the following papers: Alina Ostrowski et al., who demonstrated their efforts on annotating and retrieving formulaic functions in papal charters. Franziska Quaas and Christoph Walther, who presented early medieval charters and compared their formulaicity on the level of the charter form. Mark Vermeer, who provided insights into the legal quality and status of formulas in late medieval protocolla.

Finally, a point addressed by the many: scholars would love to apply more domain-specific knowledge in the search for better quantitative results, but are often hesitant about or oblivious to best approaching this synthesis. They freeze at the thought of translating multimodal formulaicity to digital approaches that are both effective AND understandable.

DiDip is thankful for the great exchange, and we as well as the community emerging from this event are already paving the way to tackle problems such as these in the very near future. Closing with a Yiddish proverb: “A table is not blessed if it has fed no scholars”.

Cite this blog post
atzenhofer (2024, February 9). “I know a table when I see one” – DiDip at a Formulaicity conference. DiDip. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://didip.hypotheses.org/2440

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