Is a boat manual still a manual a hundred years later?

(All inaccuracies in this anecdote are mine).

During  a seminar on genre at Stockholm University, J. K. remarked that genre is too fluctuating to be captured computationally. Genre, he said, is much more than its linguistic markup. What we can capture is the linguistic form but not the genre itself. For instance, he continued, what belongs to a genre today does not necessarily belong to the same genre in the future. To support his claim he told us that he was reading an old manual of a boat built about a century ago. As such an manual is completely out of date for  modern boats, he was not getting any practical advice or troubleshooting hint, but simply enjoying the pleasure of ancient prose. So, is a boat manual still a manual a hundred years later? Or does it simply become prose, tarnished by the passing time? When all the technicalities have no practical use any more,  when all the tips have become useless, is an instructional genre still instructional? Or has the original genre lost its nature to become something else? The function has changed, the language has evolved, the content has become obsolete. One might appreciate or use this old manual for other reasons. Maybe, collectionists might use it to repair an ancient boat . Maybe linguists might use it to investigate language evolution, style evolution, or the evolution of the genre itself. Since genres are dynamic, they evolve together with language society, and culture…

Uhm, this is certainly true. However, I believe, a text belonging to a genre will belong to the same genre 100 years later, regardless of genre evolution or even genre disappearance. For instance, a business letter, a recipe, an editorial written a century ago still belong to the same genre today, although the actuality of information has faded out and the makeup of the genre has changed. A genre is essentially a cultural object and it brings with it its culture. Similarly, a Louis XIV chair built in the XVIII century is still a chair today, although today we might appreciate more its style, manufacture, material or form rather than its functionality.

A genre can evolve in terms of content, form, purpose, community and use… So, in order to understand a genre, we must place it in the cultural context where it was spawned. The question then is: can we capture context computationally? I optimistically would say: yes! The way in which language is used tells us a lot about the context of communication…

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