Bridging the Unbridgeable Lunch Lecture on ELAN

The next Bridging the Unbridgeable lunch lecture will take place on 21 October 2014, at 13:00 in Lipsius 308. During this session Amanda Delgado Galvan, a PhD candidate at LUCL, will introduce the language annotation tool ELAN and show how it can be used in language research.

ELAN is a tool that allows you to create, edit, visualise and search annotations for video and audio data. It was specifically designed for the analysis of languages and it can be used by anyone who works with video and audio data for the purposes of annotation, documentation and analysis.

All those interested in the topic are welcome! Bring your own lunch!

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A vintage copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary

I always thought this is what the COD looked like:

Until yesterday, when I found a lovely, what might be described as a vintage copy of the book on the Free Books Table we have on the second floor of the English Department at Leiden:


What a lovely cover, I wonder who designed it. I also wonder who left it on the table, or who the previous owner, A.P. Parker Brady, was. The book, printed in 1928 (1st edition 1911), was bought at a local bookshop in Lochem, a small town in the east of The Netherlands. The title page is also worth showing here:

Title page

Like The King’s English (1906), the book was produced by the two Fowler brothers together, and at a time when the Oxford English Dictionary on which it is based hadn’t even been finished yet. You can read all about the writing of the COD in Jenny McMorris’s The Warden of English (2001), Henry Fowler’s biography.

So: thank you anonymous donor, for this lovely little book! And do let us have more such books if anyone has any to spare. They will be in good hands.

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A page from the history of linguistics

In the next couple of months, I will be conducting research on diachronic changes in English usage at the University of Freiburg by looking into the “Brown family” of corpora.

The Brown Corpus of Standard American English was the first of the  computer readable, general, million-word corpora compiled by Francis and Kučera at Brown University in the 1960s. Its creation inspired a number of mirroring “family” of corpora, including its British English counterpart, the Lancaster-Oslo-Bergen (LOB) corpus. In today’s terms the one million-word corpora are considered to be rather small in size, however, back in the early days of corpus linguistics, the Brown corpus, which was stored on 100,000 punched cards, represented an emancipatory step in studying naturally-occurring language.

To my great and pleasant surprise, my new office is the home to the original texts which make up the two newer editions to the Brown family, the Freiburg-Brown (Frown) and the Freiburg-LOB (FLOB) corpora dating from 1991. I am looking forward to looking into them, through automatic searches instead of page turning, of course.

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A lost cause?

Alex Salmond at polling station

Yesterday Scotland has voted and decided to stay within the United Kingdom. Today newspapers are filled with punchy and informative headlines analysing the outcome of the Scottish referendum. When I was reading an article in The Independent, my eyes fell immediately on two little words: concede defeat.
You may ask yourself now what’s the big deal or what’s wrong with this expression. And you are rightly doing so. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with concede defeat. But a related expression, concede victory, is found troublesome by a few. In my research on the BBC I have come across the ‘usage problem’ of using concede victory instead of concede defeat. The BBC style guide declares the use of “concede defeat” as “wrong” and favours the use of concede victory. Intrigued by this issue, I have decided to see how concede is actually used in the reporting on the referendum vote in the online media.

Doing a simple google search for “Salmond concedes defeat” and “Salmond has conceded defeat” results in 4,030 and 412 hits respectively*, while the same search with “Salmond concedes victory”  and “Salmond has conceded victory” show a completely different picture. The search including the present tense of concede remained fruitless, while the later search resulted in a meagre 8 hits.  What was striking from these results is not only the low numbers for concede victory, but also the fact that concede victory does not seem to be a British problem. It was found only on the Irish and homepages**. This is surprising as I was expecting to find some results from the BBC News homepage. What does the BBC use then? Have they changed their mind about the use of concede victory?

The OED states in his entry on concede that concede means to admit defeat, to acknowledge that an election is lost. If you take the search further and investigate the BNC, you will see the same pattern as in the online media search. Concede defeat occurs more frequently than concede victory.


click to enlarge

A simple glance at the BBC homepage instantly answers the question concerning the BBC’s stance on concede. Instead of using concede altogether, the journalist smartly used accept defeat. The BBC style guide also advises on this usage in order to avoid “the problem”. It seems that the BBC is aware of the controversy about the use of concede victory, which still raises the follwowing questions. Why does the BBC advises its journalists to use concede victory if concede defeat is more frequently used? Is the BBC fighting a long lost cause?

* Google searches were conducted in the morning of the 19/9/2014, so the numbers of hits are subject to change.

** Shows results in google search, but cannot be retrieved from the news provider itself.

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The language of The Catcher in the Rye

We are moving house this summer, and while packing up the books in my study I came across an article I wrote nearly thirty years ago but that I had completely forgotten about. It is about usage problems and their function in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). (Prescriptivism has clearly been one of my lifelong academic interests!)

I had written it as part of a Festschrift for Sarah Betsky-Zweig (1923-1999) when she retired from the chair of American literature at the Leiden English Department in 1986. The article deals with double negation, subject pronouns in object position, between you and I, and he/she/it don’t, and it argues that Salinger used features like these (there are many more in Holden’s language) to depict different types of speakers in a sociolinguistically highly convincing way. All these features, with the exception of he/she/it don’t, are dealt with in English usage guides, as anyone consulting our HUGE database will be able to see for themselves.

With Salinger (1919-2010) having been so much in the news recently (a biography by David Shields and Shane Salerno came out a year ago and five new novels are expected to be published posthumously) I thought I’d revive the article, to confirm Salinger’s brilliance as a writer, and I slightly updated it in the process. So here it is: “Between you and I: Non-standard grammar and The Catcher in the Rye“.

Plain Sense of Things

Salinger is no longer alive, nor is Sarah Betsky. But my copy of the book also contained her thank-you note, in which she made an interesting comment:

You made me remember the strange censorship of Catcher. In the 1950s we were forbidden (upon pain of being fired) to teach Catcher at the university in the U.S.A. Imagine! It would corrupt student language!

Hard to imagine these days that books would be forbidden just because they make a character confuse lie and lay, use like as if, singular they and that’s for whose!

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Farewell to Geoffrey Leech

This month, Geoffrey Leech, the eminent Professor and the founder of the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University, passed away. Due to his major contributions to the fields of corpus linguistics, stylistics, pragmatics and semantics, as well as his work on several renowned descriptive grammars of the English language, the phrase “Old professor never die, they simply fade away” is more than suitable in this particular case. Several years ago Geoffrey wrote an academic autobiography where you can read about his academic journey, interests, experiences, colleagues and the numerous projects he was involved in the course of his career.


Since Geoffrey’s interests have several overlaps with our ongoing project, I would here like to mention just a few of his many contributions to the investigations of English grammar and language change. Geoffrey was one of the first scholars to recognize the potential of studying naturally occurring language and one of the pioneers in corpus linguistics. His work on the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen Corpus (LOB Corpus), the British English equivalent of the American Brown Corpus (later also including the Brown family corpora) led to many relevant discoveries in corpus tagging methods, and also to many studies dealing with diachronic grammatical changes in English and with differences between British and American English.

Geoffrey contributed to three highly influential descriptive English grammars, A Grammar of Contemporary English (1972), A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985) and the Longman Grammar or Spoken and Written English (1999). They all used innovative approaches based on describing language use and were seen as the main authorities on English grammar.

grammarsSome of the changes in English language Geoffrey was dealing with included concepts such as colloquialization, the adaptation of written towards spoken norms, an example of which is the increased use of contractions in writing (can’t, won’t, it’s, we’re). He also did work on  grammaticalization, the process of turning lexical material into grammatical, and he described the increase in the use of semi-modals (such as gonna, gotta and wanna) in English which are slowly assuming the role of the modal verbs.  Geoffrey also described the process of Americanization, or adopting American linguistic habits and conventions to the British context (another one of the recurring topics on our blog). In one of our older posts, we also wrote about Geoffrey’s plenary lecture at the Helsinki Corpus Festival where he described the decline in the usage of the passive construction in English, which is partly influenced by the prescriptivist tradition.

And the list goes on, we could hardly fit all of Geoffrey’s valuable contributions in this post. To find out a bit more about his legacy from the man himself, you can here see Geoffrey in conversation with Tony McEnery in 2013 at Lancaster University.

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Help us out: journal suggestions?

helpWe are looking for scholarly secondary works dealing with prescriptivism/descriptivism with an emphasis on usage guides and usage problems for the HUGE-database. So far, we have looked at journals such as American Speech, English Studies, English Today, The English Journal and Language in Society.

Do you have any suggestions for journals that regularly publish articles on one (or all) of these topics? Please help us out. Thanks!

Robin & Emily 

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