Vive la eRevolution!

25 Jan

“We are in the middle of a syntactical and discursive revolution.”

Ron Carter (2013)
Research Professor of Modern English Language, University of Nottingham, UK

You’d be hard pushed these days to find decent, up-to-date ELT course materials that don’t claim to be informed, in one way or another, by corpora.  Digital technology allows us to gather and analyse all kinds of language data which in turn helps to inform language teaching and materials development. A couple of short blog posts from Professor Ron Carter (2011) provide a gentle and very readable introduction to corpora and corpus linguistics for anyone new to this:

Some corpora are bigger than others

The true value of corpora informed ELT materials depends on two key elements: the nature of the corpus or corpora that have been used, and the way in which the information they reveal has been practically applied. And it’s not just about size. For example, if you have a 10o million word corpus consisting primarily of samples from written academic work by native English speakers, that’s not going to be of much use for informing an ELT book on speaking skills. Ideally, a corpus should represent data from a balanced range of ages, nationalities, gender, occupations and so on, and it must be very aware of its own limitations, some are general and some are very specific.

Texts and tweets

I was therefore curious when I heard about a ‘texts and tweets’ project being led by Professor Carter, which has been addressing the (some would say long overdue) need for a corpus that gathers, for want of a better word, ‘eLanguage’ data. It’s a pilot research project called CANELC (Cambridge and Nottingham eLanguage Corpus) and some of the inital findings were presented by Professor Carter and Dr Dawn Knight, to staff at Cambridge University Press this week.

CANELC is a one million word corpus of digitally-based communication in English. Data has been gathered from UK message boards, blogs, tweets, emails and SMS messages, between the years of 2006 and 2011, though with the majority of data coming from 2010 and 2011. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed a few limitations already: UK only, no 2012 data and no Facebook. In the words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast”, in fact so fast these days, that by the time you think you’ve got to grips with the OMGs and LOLs, those pesky kids have invented a whole new way of communicating, LOL is only used with a sarcastic tone, OMG is lame, and you’re an old dinosaur. The issue with no Facebook data relates to consent. The chaining effect on Facebook and distribution amongst friends makes it close to impossible to obtain consent to use this data in a corpus. Similar problems exist on other social media sites.

Let’s talk about syntax

So those are some of the problems, but this pilot project has provided some fascinating insights into the ways in which eLanguage is changing the way we communicate in English, and what I felt was central to Professor Carter’s and Dr Knight’s findings was that it’s not all about new words / acronyms, or even new meanings for ‘old’ words (net, surf, windows, etc.). It’s syntax and discourse that are changing, and we’re in the middle of a revolution.

Here’s just a small sample of what the analysis of this corpus revealed:

We are seeing much more informality and ‘spoken-ness’ in written language. This is not limited to SMS and Twitter. Emails are becoming just as informal.

Politeness, softening and hedging are becoming much less common. Perhaps due to the economy of space, Twitter communication tends to be very direct. Though I did notice that ‘thank you’ is at number two on the two-word lexical item frequency list.

There’s a big increase in personal pronouns, when compared with other corpora.

Kisses are a pervasive feature of ecommunication. The presence, number or absence of kisses at the end of a message is an aspect of ‘netiquette’ that leaves many people floundering.

The rules of punctuation are pretty much suspended.

Pictures and emoticons are an essential part of ecommunication, with the visual over-riding the linguistic.

Haptic communication ‘((hugz))’ seems to be a way of bringing a physical presence to the digital world. We are also obsessed with saying where we are and what we’re doing. Or even what we’re not doing.

Modal verbs are starting to slip out of usage.

Banter, play and creativity with language are all very common.

This really is just the tip of the iceberg and opens far more questions than it answers. In essence we are seeing language that is a hybrid of written and spoken communication, one that’s constantly evolving, and one that doesn’t just exist in digital form but which is creeping into the way we speak as well.

Implications for ELT

Professor Carter made it very clear that eLanguage adds another layer (possibly even layers) of complication to the world of the English language learner, but in his opinion it complicates it for the better. Awareness of the way we use language in the digital world is becoming essential and it’s fascinating to see how this is affecting all aspects of communication. Whilst the ideas of ‘netiquette’ and eLanguage are starting to appear in some course materials, it’s unlikely that we’re going to see marginalisation of modal verbs anytime soon, and particularly when these things are still being tested in national and international language examinations. As far as I’m aware, replying to a celebrity tweet is not yet a core element of Cambridge’s First Certificate exam.

And on the topic of celebrity tweets, I was interested to hear Professor Carter cite another piece of research (I didn’t catch the source) that had analysed the language of celebrities on Twitter. It will perhaps come as no surprise to many Twitter users that choice language is prevalanet amongt celebrity Tweeters, and the UK’s own Lily Allen (now Lily Rose Cooper) came top of the swearers. That’s @lilyrosecooper for any language learners who want to learn how to curse like a sailor.


For more information on Cambridge corpora:

For an insight into data gathering for smaller corpora projects:

For highlights from Professor Carter’s and Dr Knight’s CANELC talk: #CANELC live tweeted by @ericbaber (24 January 2013)


2 Responses to “Vive la eRevolution!”


  1. Vive la eRevolution! | Applied Corpus Linguistics to Education | - January 29, 2013

    […] “We are in the middle of a syntactical and discursive revolution.” Ron Carter (2013) Research Professor of Modern English Language, University of Nottingham, UK You’d be hard push… (Corpus linguistics for the next generation!  […]

  2. eRevolution in communication | znahi - February 8, 2013

    […] […]

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