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Evolution of vocabulary in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.

Wadsworth, Fabian B. and Vasseur, Jérémie and Damby, David E. (2017) 'Evolution of vocabulary in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.', Digital scholarship in the humanities., 32 (3). pp. 660-671.


In this study, we provide a quantitative analysis of the temporal evolution of word choice across the career of Sylvia Plath, a poet who suffered from mental illness, which culminated in her suicide. Her work provides an excellent case study for temporally indexed changes in vocabulary due to well-dated records of her productivity. We use simple functions to discriminate bulk trends in her vocabulary and classify words into those that accelerate, decelerate, or represent consistency in usage. Overall, we find that Plath’s vocabulary was exceptionally consistent throughout her career from 1956 to 1963; however, we observe relative changes in the frequency of words used. Two examples of this evolution are in her use of colours and personal pronouns. Namely, we note a consistently increasing preference towards black and white above other colour words from 1956 to 1963 and, in contrast, we observe a marked transition from dominant use of third-person feminine to dominant use of first-person singular in her later work. We find that the most dynamic changes in word use occurred between March and May 1959 and we tie these observations to events recorded in Plath’s journal entries. We propose that our function-discrimination approach offers a vital tool in the objective analysis of word-use for understanding style evolution and for correlation with a poet’s life events that may influence their work.

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Date of first online publication:25 July 2016
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