Vive la eRevolution (Seconde Partie)

10 Feb

My post a couple of weeks ago on the eLanguage corpus, CANELC (Cambridge and Nottingham eLanguage Corpus), prompted a few questions on Twitter and other social media sites about word frequencies. I’d made the observation that despite the very direct nature of Twitter and other eLanguage, ‘thank you’ was the second most frequent two-word item in the CANELC corpus, suggesting that politeness isn’t being lost, even though economy of space means that we’re reducing the hedging and softening in our communications.

However, I didn’t want to dwell too much on the frequency tables because out of context, and without analysis, they’re pretty meaningless.That said, Professor Carter has kindly provided the slides from his talk so I can now give at least a few insights into what these frequency lists might tell us. Plus, I like lists, and it seems other people do too, so here are the top 50 most frequent single words from CANELC (click on the image to increase the size):


In his talk, Professor Carter noted a high frequency of pronouns, which is particularly interesting when you compare the CANELC list to the 100 million word BNC (British National Corpus). Pronoun use in the spoken BNC = 1: 38; in the written BNC = 1: 200; and in CANELC = 1: 43. A clear indication  that eLanguage has far more in common with spoken language than with ‘traditional’ written language. The demonstratives ‘this’ and ‘that’ are also high up on the list, which Professor Carter feels “underlines the personal nature of most e-communication, with significant pointing to referents in the most immediate environments.”

And here are the top 50 most frequent two-word units:


With this list we see what Professor Carter refers to as “the frequent use of temporal referents” which “allows for an immediate or near-immediate information exchange in near real-time.” So words like ‘next week’, ‘next year’, ‘this morning’ and so on are helping to create “a shared digital space rather than physical space, within which the social, physical and temporal context is frequently changeable.” And in this way, eLanguage as a ‘genre’ “behaves like synchronous communication.” So although this language is written, many exchanges are taking place in real time and, perhaps inevitably, the language is more like that we are used to hearing in spoken communication.

Going back to the single word list, you will see that the humble ‘x’ is sitting at number 38. This is because the most common closings in eLanguage are: x, xx and xxx. In his talk, Professor Carter referred to a Daisy Goodwin column in the Sunday Times from August 2012. The article  highlights how written business communications, which were once “carefully calibrated and deeply unexciting” now leave us “floundering in semantic uncertainties.” It seems an ‘x’ or two (or three) at the end of an email is not just for friends and family, they’re creeping in to business emails too, leaving some of us unsure whether flirtation has moved out of the stationery cupboard and on to email, or if we’re causing offence by omitting an x, xx or xxx from our own business communications.

These are just a few observations which barely scratch the surface of Professor Carter’s and Dr Knight’s talk, and the pilot project they conducted. We are likely to see CANELC, and similar projects, soon having a significant impact on written corpora data, and this will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on our understanding of eLanguage and have implications for language learning and teaching in the future. In fact, CANELC data has already been added to the Cambridge Written English Corpus, the web pages for which explain in more detail how corpora are used in ELT materials writing.

Corpus banner

Want to find out more about eLanguage corpus research? Below is a table, again kindly supplied by Professor Carter, of other projects that have been initiated around the world. What’s different about these is that unlike CANELC, which took samples from a wide variety of e-communication, the corpora listed below are more bespoke, each focusing on one very specific variety of eLanguage:

Interesting to see that one person’s junk mail is another person’s research project. Should anyone take the time to seek out information on these projects, please do post any insights. xxx 😉

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