Radio Lab Podcast: Vanishing Words

Today I listened to a Radio Lab podcast from WNYC in New York. Quickly becoming one of my favorite podcasts to listen to. The episode that I listened to today is called Vanishing Words and can be listened to here. The gist of this very interesting episode was that a guy is using computer linguistic analysis to study Agatha Christie’s novels. Upon doing this he discovered that over time, Christie’s vocabulary decreased by a significant amount as she got older. There had been some people who thought that she may have suffered from some kind of dementia but it was not clear. This study seemed to lend support to that theory. They also discussed another study where they were able to predict with 85% accuracy whether a person would develop dementia when they got older by looking at their vocabulary and writing style when they were young. Although certainly not conclusive it was very interesting.

So why I am bring this up today? Well, other than the fact that Radio Lab is simply a cool show to listen to that always makes you think, this made me think about something else that I thought was interesting. In keeping in line with my developing skepticism of the Bible and other “authoritative” religious books of the past, it seems that studies like this should give us pause. Often, when trying to figure out who wrote what book in the bible there is a linguistic analysis that is done on the vocabulary of the writings to compare with this persons other attributed writings. There are conclusions that are arrived at about two different people who wrote Isaiah, five possible people who wrote the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) as well as different theories on Paul’s letters in the new testament. Given some of the ideas discussed in this podcast, it seems reasonable to conclude that the change in vocabulary with some of these different books may be the result of changing mental faculties over the years. Maybe Moses or Isaiah or Paul simply had some form of dementia and this is what made some of their ideas hard to square with other of their ideas. Maybe this is why there seems to be evidence of multiple authors of various biblical books. This of course would only make our job that much harder when it comes to trying to understand ancient authors, but it is definitely something to consider.

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