Words are distributed unevenly in texts. This is a lucky fact for corpus linguists, who study the nature of this distribution, and are often able to identify linguistic patterns which may otherwise remain hidden. Why should we care? Here’s an example, based on a) evidence from my collection of 40.000+ digital newspaper articles, aka ‘corpus’, and b) my heart.
This morning that same heart was broken, when I woke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU. I can’t even begin to tell you how devastated that makes me feel. Only yesterday I had such a happy day, because I’d reached a milestone in my PhD: I’d finished processing all my data and had excitedly begun to explore the above-mentioned corpus.
Some words have a tendency to co-occur with others, which is known as collocation. Corpus linguistics makes a strong case for collocations being a more helpful unit of meaning than words. Take for example the collocation ‘friendly fire’: this phrase means something entirely different to just simply the sum of the words ‘friendly’ + ‘fire’. So playing around with my corpus of British articles on German, the Germans and Germany, I made a list of frequent collocates of ‘Germans’. Right at the top of the list: ordinary. When I looked at the concordance lines in detail, they showed that ordinary Germans was almost exclusively used in the context of the darkest chapter in German history, such as:
- Did ordinary Germans know what was going on?
- Ordinary Germans were more complicit in the liquidation of European Jewry than historians have previously supposed
- There were widespread denials by ordinary Germans that they had known about the existence of internment and death camps
- A television drama exploring the guilt of ordinary Germans during the Second World War
- The issue of how much the inhumanity of ordinary Germans was an acquired survival response to the prevailing Nazi terror is sidestepped
- Her account of ordinary Germans coping with life during wartime
- At the time Nazism had a powerful appeal to ordinary Germans
- Hitler didn’t use violence against most ordinary Germans
- The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans
The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans. As opposed to whom, extra-ordinary Germans? Who are these ordinary people? I don’t really know, but what I do know is that splitting any group or society in a polarised way is a very very bad idea. Early this morning, an icy chill took hold of my heart when I heard UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s comment on the referendum result: “This will be a victory for ordinary people”.