A methodological progression

(with thanks to Jill Bowie)


One of the most controversial arguments in corpus linguistics concerns the relationship between a ‘variationist’ paradigm comparable with lab experiments, and a traditional corpus linguistics paradigm focusing on normalised word frequencies.

Rather than see these two approaches as diametrically opposed, we propose that it is more helpful to view them as representing different points on a methodological progression, and to recognise that we are often forced to compromise our ideal experimental practice according to the data and tools at our disposal.

Viewing these approaches as being represented along a progression allows us to step back from any single perspective and ask ourselves how different results can be reconciled and research may be improved upon. It allows us to consider the potential value in performing more computer-aided manual annotation — always an arduous task — and where such annotation effort would be usefully focused.

The idea is sketched in the figure below.

A methodological progression

A methodological progression: from normalised word frequencies to verified alternation.

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Choice vs. use


Many linguistic researchers are interested in semasiological variation, that is, how the meaning of words and expressions may be observed to vary over time or space. One word might have one dominant meaning or use at one point in time, and other meanings may supplant them. This is of obvious interest to etymology. How do new meanings come about? Why do others decline? Do old meanings die away or retain a specialist use?

Most of the research we have discussed on this blog is, by contrast, concerned with onomasiological variation, or variation in the choice of words or expressions to express the same meaning. In a linguistic choice experiment, the field of meaning is held to be constant, or approximately so, and we are concerned primarily with language production:

  • Given that a speaker (or writer, but we take speech as primary) wishes to express some thought, T, what is the probability that they will use expression E₁ out of the alternate forms {E₁, E₂,…} to express it?

This probability is meaningful in the language production process: it measures the actual use out of the options available to the speaker, at the point of utterance.

Conversely, semasiological researchers are concerned with a different type of probability:

  • Given that a speaker used an expression E, what is the probability that their meaning was T₁ out of the set of {T₁, T₂,…}?

For the hearer, this measure can also be thought of as the exposure rate: what proportion of times should a hearer (reader) interpret E as expressing T₁? This probability is meaningful to a language receiver, but it is not a meaningful statistic at the point of language production.

From the speaker’s point of view we can think of onomasiological variation as variation in choice, and semasiological variation as variation in relative proportion of use.

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