This talk was by Dr. Elaine Higgleton who besides being measured, articulate and erudite, had whet everyone’s appetite with a quiz the preceding evening on Old and Middle English spellings and pronunciation along with lexis borrowed from around the world. Her talk was not so much an introduction to corpora as it was a look at how a corpus can help us understand shifts in language use and whether this language change matters to Ts and T educators.
She started off by asking for the different senses of the word “club” both noun and verb. She elicited two responses for the verb form: to batter someone and to gather together. She then explained to us that the use of the verb club without “together” in the sense we clubbed money to buy him a present is only seen in Indian English whereas the British equivalent would generally be we clubbed together money … A corpus that includes a wide variety of ‘Englishes’ from around the world could potentially help us recognize this variation.
While a concordance view can show us what’s around the target word, Dr. Higgleton suggested that it’s not actually very helpful and that a word sketch view (I think this might be an exclusive feature of the Collins corpus) can help us understand which words the word that we are looking at frequently collocates with. In the case of club, it most frequently collocates with “join” so we might prioritize “to join a club” for teaching depending on the level of the Ss.
In the next exercise, she had us looking at the distinction between trip and journey. The denotative meanings she elicited largely distinguished between the two seemingly synonymous words in terms of duration. However, the corpus suggests that connotations of trip are far more neutral than journey (e.g., arduous journey).
A corpus can also give us other insights about a word. For instance, when we consider adjectives used to describe “footfall”, we’d think of “heavy footfall” in the sense of “… increasingly heavy footfall at the Taj Mahal”. But, what is the opposite of heavy? Light? Not in this case as the corpus tells us that the opposite of heavy footfall is in fact soft footfall and in the middle somewhere is average footfall.
Corpora can also indicate language change such as the tendency to use the progressive -ing form in utterances such as:
But hang on a tick, I’m forgetting my manners.
Nobody is imagining that the Conservatives can win.
I’m wanting the film to be deliberately old-fashioned
Or “and I was like” (be like) as a reporting structure in examples such as:
We saw that and we were like ‘Oh my god!’
At first, I was like, no, what are you talking about?
They look at you like you’re mental and it’s like, “Chill out, what’s your problem?”
The corpus also tells us the use of the be like structure is more prevalent in US English and in conjunction with the first person. The other example Dr. Higgleton picked up was “mouse” whose dominant sense has changed in the corpus from rodent to computer hardware. Cloud has also undergone a similar change.
Dr. Higgleton, however, cautions against the taking these inferences at face value alone and demonstrated why we might need a lexicographer to help us analyse this information. She used a sketch difference view to suggest that clever and intelligent, despite being near-synonyms reveal something else on closer analysis. Clever tends to be used with adverbs that have a negative connotation and being clever has increasingly become a negative quality.
She saved the best for last though. A quick audience poll proved that nearly everyone was taught and currently teach the following rule:
She explained that this was an 18th century rule that had long since fallen out of use but was regrettably fossilized in Wren & Martin. Wren & Martin or to use its actual title – High School English Grammar & Composition is a book that millions of Indians swear by and is used by a large number … perhaps even a majority of English teachers in India. It largely retains the same prescriptive rules that it contained when it was first published in 1935 and is still among the top selling books, year after year. Dr. Higgleton’s advice was to stack up our Wren & Martins and burn ’em. This obviously deeply traumatised one woman (who I discovered later in the conference guide under the list of organizers as serving on the teacher-training boards of two Indian states) who stood up shook a trembling fist at the speaker and proclaimed that no evil corpus would dictate circumstances that would cause language to change before she managed to teach it to students (no she didn’t say these words but I sense this is what she wanted to say). The fact that the corpus Dr. Higgleton was referring to had a large set of Indian English data made little difference to this woman.
I threw out or gave away my Wren & Martin when I was in my early teens. A pity because this low pressure system and unseasonal chill would have lent itself to some nice prescriptive grammar book burning.
- Collins WordBanks Online (requires a paid subscription)