Authorship, language and textual pathology: linguistic changes in Iris Murdoch's informal writings

12 July 2019 1.00pm 1.45pm


Lecture Theatre, Weston Library (Map)


Professor Peter Garrard, Professor of Neurology, St George's, University of London


Janet Walwyn | 01865 287156 |


Iris Murdoch's profound and well-documented late life cognitive decline was caused by the accumulation of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in her brain: the molecular signature of Alzheimer's disease. Yet plaque and tangle deposition begins many years, if not decades, before cognitive changes first emerge, so the discovery of methods for defining and measuring this 'preclinical' phase is one of the central challenges in Alzheimer's disease research.

Language change is regarded as a leading contender for the status of preclinical marker, with deep and detailed linguistic analysis now performed on speech and language samples from thousands of patients and controls. One of the earliest pieces of work relevant to this objective was the textual analysis that Professor Garrard and his colleagues in the University of Cambridge carried out on Murdoch's final novel, Jackson's Dilemma, which she wrote right at the end of the preclinical phase. Jackson's Dilemma showed changes similar to those found in the language of patients with established disease. After reviewing this work and the subsequent experiments it inspired, Professor Garrard will introduce the new generation of computationally based techniques in corpus linguistics by presenting some more recent work on longitudinal changes in Murdoch's informal writings (diaries and letters), which he has examined in a fine-grained manner using a machine learning approach.

  • 9am-5pm -Iris Murdoch and Alzheimer’s: a small display of items relating to this talk will be available to view in the Transept in the Weston Library.
    The written output of Iris Murdoch (1919–1999) includes both published work and unpublished letters and journals. Three years before she died Murdoch's cognitive abilities began to decline, leading to a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease in 1997. Research by Peter Garrard, Professor of Neurology at the University of London, has drawn on this unique body of textual material to demonstrate Alzheimer's-related changes in her language preceding the overt symptoms of the disease by at least a decade. 

Image: By Janet Stone, with kind permission of Ian Beck


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