Professor Tony McEnery, previously Director of the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science, is the ESRC’s new Research Director. Here, in a piece to be published in the upcoming Society Now magazine, he explains corpus linguistics and its contribution to society, how language is changing, and his aspirations in his new role.
What are the challenges of the corpus linguistics area of research and what is the contribution that corpus linguistics has made to society? What might a non-scientific person on the street recognise/understand as the impacts from this genre of research?
Corpus linguistics – studying language through the analysis of a very large number of examples of how language is actually used in context (we call such a collection a corpus) – has made a great contribution to the modern world. It has revolutionised dictionary publishing and language teaching, for example.
But also, and importantly, it has encouraged computer scientists to look at language this way, meaning that many of the technologies we use today – from the cutting edge, such as speech recognition, to the apparently mundane, like predictive typing – are all based on this general approach to language.
What trends have you observed in political communication and messaging? Is politics today in the US and UK all about sloganeering and being on-message or can substance still succeed?
Substance alone has never been enough to win an argument – the form in which an argument is presented can be as important as the substance of it. Politicians are well aware of this, as are the spin doctors and speechwriters that advise them. That can lead them at times to be disciplined and on-message, but also to realise that, on occasion, it might be in their best interests to be distinctive and appear unconventional in style. Politicians, and others, use language to persuade as much as they use facts to that end. I firmly believe that a solid grounding for a democratic society is provided by giving citizens the knowledge and insight to see through these techniques. I have been working, in my own small way, towards that goal for some time!
What do you think has been the biggest influence on the way in which we use English today? (For example increased immigration; the 60s revolution; ‘Americanisms’; modern technology etc). And why is this?
American English is leading change in British English. Corpus linguistics is a great way of showing this – you can study British English and American English over time through the data.
In my research centre we have done this over a hundred years for American and British English.
A consistent pattern has emerged – as American English changes, British English follows it after a lag. This applies to a whole host of changes – for example, to more informal usage with less use of titles such as ‘Sir’, ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, or to certain modal verbs, typically ones which are very directive, becoming less and less frequent, eg, must and should.
What changes have you noticed in corpus linguistics (and research generally) in recent years, especially with the increasing amount of data that are now available?
Corpus linguistics in many ways pioneered the use of big data. When other approaches to language were looking to symbolic logic and introspection for their inspirations, linguists, and British linguists in particular, in the 1960s and 1970s were building the first big corpora. In those days big was a million words. Even so, analysing data sets of that size meant working with the assistance of computers. One major change is that big has got bigger over time! We now have multibillion word corpora of English to work with.
But our view through time has also got deeper. We now have large collections of text, readable by machines, from previous centuries. I have just finished a study using a billion words from the seventeenth century!
In terms of major changes, the data revolution that swept through linguistics in the 1980s and 1990s is now sweeping through other research areas too, with effects every bit as profound and promising as those experienced in linguistics.