Research Seminars

Research seminars

The Magic Words: Please and Thank You in American and British English

M. Lynne Murphy (University of Sussex)

Wednesday 16th January 2019

Various corpus studies have found that please and thank* (i.e. thanks or thank you) occur in inverse proportions in American and British English, with British using please at around twice the rate of Americans and Americans thanking up to twice as much as Britons. Given such a severe difference, we have to wonder: do these words perform the same functions in the two countries?

This talk presents the results of three corpus studies. Two (with Rachele De Felice of University College London) examine please and thank* in US and UK corporate emails from the 1990s–early 2000s. Because the corpora are speech-act tagged, we were able to look at both the presence and absence of please in requests and to analyse which types of impositions attract please in the two corporate cultures. For thank* we analysed (among other things) its use as a marker of gratitude versus its use as a request marker, especially in US English. The third study looks at usage of please in the GloWBE corpus of web-based English, and considers its full range of usage: as a sincere request marker, but also as an expression of exasperation/disbelief, as a tool of mock politeness, etc.

Different rates of usage reflect the different functions and meanings the words have in the two cultures, but also perhaps, more generally, different values for formulaicness in politeness marking, recalling Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1840 observation that American manners are  “neither so tutored nor so uniform” as the British but “they are frequently more sincere”.

About the speaker:
M. Lynne Murphy is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex. She is the author of Semantic Relations and the Lexicon (Cambridge UP, 2003), Lexical Meaning (Cambridge UP, 2010) and The Prodigal Tongue: The Love–Hate Relationship between American and British English (Penguin, 2018).

Linguistics Research Seminars 2018-2019 - Term 2 Schedule

The new schedule is here!

The Linguistics Research Seminar Series offers you the chance to hear about the latest research developments in Linguistics and Modern Languages. Seminars last around an hour and are open to anyone interested.

Fransina de Jager has taken over the coordination of these seminars from Hazel Price. For more information, please contact Fransina.

Research Seminars Spring 2019.jpg
How people use iconicity to create words from scratch

Marcus Perlman (University of Birmingham)

wednesday 5th december 2018

Iconicity clearly played an important role in the formation of many of the signs of signed languages. But how were the first spoken words created? In this talk, I present a series of experiments demonstrating how people can use vocal iconicity to create words from scratch. These studies show: 1) people can innovate iconic vocalizations to express a wide variety of meanings; 2) these vocalizations are understandable to naïve listeners, 3) including listeners from disparate cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and 4) through repeated interactions – and even just rote imitations – the vocalizations become more word-like in form and function. Taken together, these studies show how iconicity can play a vital role in the creation of spoken symbols, comparable to its function in the creation of many signs. Thus, I speculate that the use of iconic vocalizations was fundamental in the formation of the first spoken words.

The many meanings of English: An ontological framework for Applied English Linguistics

Christopher J Hall (York St John University)

28th november 2018

Searle (2008, pp. 43-4) states that, in the social sciences, “[u]nless you have a clear conception of the nature of the phenomena you are investigating, you are unlikely to develop the right methodology and the right theoretical apparatus for conducting the investigation”. Addressing teachers, Harris (2009, p. 25) asserts: “Whether you realize it or not, you are teaching not just English […], but a certain view of what that language is, and also a certain view of what a language is [...].” So for both research and practice, considering the ontological status of (the) English (language) is fundamental. Yet currently there is no explicit framework for specifying the many ways in which English can be said to exist. In this presentation I will propose such a framework, claiming that English, when used in relation to language, names types of entities associated with two ontological categories. One set of types sits within the ontological category of the language capacity, the species property. Within this category, English refers to individual instantiations of the broader capacity. The second set of ontological types is socially constructed on the basis of the contemplation of the first set; these types are all directly or indirectly derived from the process of collective identification (Jenkins, 2004) holding at the level of nation. Polemically, I will suggest that understandings of English provided within linguistics and purveyed in teachingare derived from, conditioned by, or defined with reference to, this second ontological category, rather than directly from the first. Some critical and pedagogical implications of this for English applied linguistics will be discussed.


Harris, R. (2009). Implicit and explicit language teaching. In Toolan, M. (ed.),Language teaching. Intergrational linguistic approaches (pp. 24-46). London: Routledge.

Jenkins, R. (2004). Social identity (3rd edn). London: Routledge.

Searle, J. R. (2008). Language and social ontology. Theory and society, 37, 5, 443-459.

Liverpool lexicography: compiling the Liverpool English Dictionary

Tony Crowley (University of Leeds)

Wednesday 21st November 2018

The Liverpool English Dictionary: A Record of the Language of Liverpool 1850-2015 on Historical Principles (Liverpool University Press, 2017), was based on more than thirty years research and was compiled using traditional and contemporary lexicographical methods. Together with Scouse: A Social and Cultural History(LUP, 2012), the LED refutes the traditional account of the history of language in Liverpool.

In this paper I will address a number of questions that arose during the historical documentation of this local urban vernacular. These include issues such as: the difficulty of explaining the creation of Liverpool English and its dating; cultural and linguistic boundaries; spatio-linguistic variation within the city; major influences on the form; historical attitudes towards it; its role in the formation of cultural identity. 

Lovely Nurses and Rude Receptionists: A corpus analysis of patient comments about the NHS.



This talk reports on the analysis of a 29 million word corpus of over 200,000 patient comments posted on the NHS Choices website between 2013 to 2015. The study was funded by an ESRC Knowledge Exchange Grant and involved answering questions that were set by Patients and Information Directorate, NHS England. In this talk I address one area of the research project which aimed to examine key differences in patient’s experiences across different types of healthcare providers (e.g. dentists vs GPs). Taking a corpus-based approach we identified frequent forms of positive and negative evaluation for different types of NHS staff, as well as considering the most frequently associated collocates and keywords in different sub-sections of the corpus. Concordance analyses helped to interpret and explain the patterns we found. The findings from the analysis reveal insights into both the underlying nature of patient feedback and the current state of the NHS.

The importance of gesture for documenting language: A study of gesture in two Modern South Arabian Languages.


wednesday 31st october 2018

Most observers are aware that when people speak, or interact with each other more generally, they also move their bodies in a variety of ways. Such movements may be referred to as gestures. In recent years, linguists, sociologists and psychologists have explored gestures from a variety of perspectives. Research into language and gesture has demonstrated that the two are linked phonetically, syntactically, and semantically. While this observation has had a dramatic impact on theories within linguistics, it has not had a similar impact on standard practice for language documentation. This has resulted in a continued bias towards the collection of audio rather than audio-video data. 

In this talk, I will demonstrate the importance of collecting audio-video data for linguistic analysis, by showing how critical gesture is during face-to-face interaction. Throughout the presentation I will use examples from two endangered Modern South Arabian Languages, Merhi and Śḥerεt, to demonstrate the importance of gesture annotation and analysis. I argue that the collection of audio-video data is especially important for the documentation and analysis of Merhi and Śḥerεt (andmany other endangered languages) because face-to-face communicative practices (which always include gesture) constitute the language. 

“The bloodiness and horror of it”: Exploring metaphorical accounts of endometriosis pain

Stella Bullo (Manchester Metropolitan University)


This work explores the challenges of endometriosis pain communication and the conceptualisation of pain by women who suffer from the debilitating gynecological disease of endometriosis. Endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women yet its worldwide average diagnosis length is 7.5 years. Among other manifestations, it causes severe pain in women. However, it is not infrequent to find health-care practitioners that dismiss and normalize pain as part of the female condition (Bullo, 2018). Studies also suggest that dismissal or normalisation leading to diagnosis delay may also happen as a result of miscommunication of symptoms, in particular, the way in which pain is communicated and explained during early consultations. Medical research advises that the endometriosis pain experience should assess not only the severity but also pain mechanisms (Morotti, et al., 2016). 

In this paper, I work with elicited and non-elicited data collected through interviews and online forum contributions to investigate metaphorical accounts of endometriosis pain by women. I compare the affordances of metaphors and similes to offer insights into how pain is conceptualised and communicated. The findings of the study have implications for endometriosis communication practices and will provide the basis for broader enquiries on the pain making sense experience and its communication.

Gendered social structure in 19th century children’s literature: A corpus linguistic approach

anna cermakova (University of Birmingham)

wednesday 17th october 2018

In this talk, I am going to investigate the social structure in 19th century children’s literature with a particular focus on gender representation. By using ChiLit, a 19th century corpus of children’s literature and other corpus resources I am going to illustrate how a range of textual evidence can help us gain access to different layers of society. With the example of how ‘mothers’ are portrayed, constructed, and otherwise present or absent in children’s books published in the 19th century, I will show how a corpus linguistic approach makes it possible to identify some of characteristics of social structures that are shared across children’s books. The shared elements of fictional worlds provide key links to the real world of the time that in turn has influenced contemporary social structures in a profound way. Gender is one of the fundamental structuring principles of our society and as such it is reflected and reproduced in everyday language practice. Everyone grows up into a gendered discourse. However, gender is constructed in different ways in different discourses and the discourses also have a diachronic dimension. In order to understand today’s discourse on gender, we need to understand its origins. 

Assertion & Presupposition: A Cross-Linguistic Experimental Investigation into the Syntax-Meaning Mapping

Kajsa Djarv (University of Pennsylvania)

Wednesday 10th october 2018

In this talk I present new data from a large-scale cross-linguistic experimental study, addressing two empirical questions regarding attitude predicates that take declarative clausal complements:

  1. (To what extent) are ASSERTION and PRESUPPOSITION syntactically encoded in the embedded clause?

  2. How does the lexical meaning of attitude verbs constrain: (i) the availability of different kinds of declarative complements; and (ii) the interpretation of the embedded clause, and the utterance as a whole?

These questions are at the heart of several theoretical debates, going back to Kiparksy & Kiparsky 1970, Emonds 1970, Hooper & Thompson 1973, and Stalnaker 1974, 1978. Much of the work in this area has centered around a family of constructions, so-called Main Clause Phenomena (MCP), which although typically confined to unembedded clauses, are also observed to be available in some embedded declaratives. The consensus view in the literature is that the availability of MCP correlates positively with ASSERTION, and negatively with PRESUPPOSITION.

However, despite its long history, providing a precise characterization---and hence a predictive theory---of this syntax-meaning relationship, has proven challenging. I attribute this to two gaps in our knowledge:

  1. First, it is not clear to what extent these constructions actually represent a (syntactically or semantically) homogeneous class.

  2. Secondly, assertion and presupposition are both multifaceted concepts; what specific aspects are relevant to the syntax?

    This talk presents new data from an on-going large-scale experimental study investigating the semantic-pragmatic conditions governing the availability of 4 different MCP, across 3 different languages, thus addressing these knowledge gaps, and paving the way for a predictive theoretical account.

Towards a corpus linguistics of sign languages: The case of indicating verbs in British Sign Language

Adam Schembri (University of Birmingham)

wednesday 3rd october 2018

In this talk, I will begin by addressing some of the widespread myths and misconceptions around sign languages (e.g., their origins, the universality of sign languages, their relationship to spoken languages) and what basic facts every (hearing) linguist really ought to know so that they can respond when they encounter these widespread misunderstandings. I will then focus on some of my work in collaboration with the British Sign Language Corpus ( team, discussing how the BSL Corpus was created, how it is being annotated, and what discoveries we are making in analysing the data. In particular, I will focus on recent work on a subset of verbs in BSL known as ‘indicating verbs’. These signs, found in the vast majority of sign languages documented to date,  can move between locations in space associated with the referents of the arguments of the verb, and thus can use space to distinguish subject and/or object. They have been the subject of intense debate, because this directionality has been compared to person agreement marking in spoken languages. A number of claims about indicating verbs have been made in the BSL and the wider sign language linguistics literature, and we will explore how corpus-based studies have begun to challenge some of these assumptions. 

The psychological validity of collocation and related association measures



In this presentation, I discuss the results of four experiments which combine methods from corpus linguistics and cognitive neuroscience in order to investigate the psychological validity of collocation and different measures of collocation strength. For each experiment, I extracted collocational adjective-noun bigrams from the BNC1994. I then constructed matched non-collocational bigrams which are absent from the BNC1994, and examined concordance lines to find suitable sentence contexts for each bigram pair. Participants then read these sentences on a computer screen one-word-at-a-time while their brain activity was recorded using scalp electrodes. This method of detecting the electrical activity of the brain by placing electrodes across the scalp is known as electroencephalography (EEG). More specifically, I used the Event-Related Potential (ERP) technique of analysing brainwave data, where the brain activity is measured in response to particular stimuli.

The aim of Experiment 1 was to pilot this procedure for determining whether or not there is a neurophysiological difference in the way that the native speaker brain processes collocational adjective-noun bigrams (e.g. clinical trials) compared to matched non-collocational adjective-noun bigrams (e.g. clinical devices). The aim of Experiment 2 was to replicate the results of Experiment 1 in another group of native English speakers, and the aim of Experiment 3 was to investigate the same phenomena in non-native speakers of English (specifically, native speakers of Mandarin Chinese). Finally, in Experiment 4, I treated collocationality as a continuous rather than a dichotomous variable in order to investigate the gradience of the ERP response, and I also aimed to investigate the psychological validity of the following association measures: transition probability, mutual information, log-likelihood, z-score, t-score, Dice-coefficient, MI3, and raw frequency. The results of this research have important implications for the field of corpus linguistics.

More research seminars coming in the new academic year!

Last week (18/04/18) we hosted the last research seminar of 2017/2018. The schedule for the 2018/2019 research seminar series will be posted here in the new academic year. 

We would like to thank everyone who came to present their work this past year. We had a brilliant line-up of speakers and their work always sparked interesting discussion after the talk. If you missed the full line up, here it is!

WYRED Project

Erica Gold, Kate Earnshaw & Sula Ross (University of Huddersfield)

18th april 2018

In this talk, we will be introducing the West Yorkshire Regional English Database (WYRED). WYRED consists of approximately 196 hours of high-quality audio recordings of 180 West Yorkshire (British English) speakers. All participants are male between the ages of 18-30, and are divided evenly (60 per region) across three boroughs within West Yorkshire (Northern England): Bradford, Kirklees, and Wakefield. Speakers participated in four spontaneous speaking tasks. The first two tasks relate to a mock crime where the participant speaks to a police officer (Research Assistant 1) followed by an accomplice (Research Assistant 2). Speakers returned a minimum of a week later at which point they were paired with someone from their borough and recorded having a conversation on any topics they wish. The final task is an experimental task in which speakers are asked to leave a voicemail message related to the fictitious crime from the first recording session. In total, each speaker participated in approximately 1 hour of spontaneous speech recordings. This talk details the design of WYRED, in order to introduce forensic speech science research utilizing this data, and to promote WYRED’s potential application in related research and in forensic speech science casework. In this talk we will also be playing a number of recordings from the database as an example of the type of data that is included in WYRED.

On reciprocity and (im)politeness

Jonathan Culpeper and Vittorio Tantucci (Lancaster University)

21st march 2018

In this presentation, I share ongoing work that I have been conducting with Vittorio Tantucci on the notion of reciprocity, specifically in the context of (im)politeness. It begins by pointing out out that reciprocity is a frequent dictum in many religions and legal frameworks, and that, as far as academia is concerned, it has been discussed in social psychology and sociology in particular. The background to our definition of reciprocity is Gouldner's suggestion that it is underpinned by “a generalized moral norm [...] which defines certain actions and obligations as repayments for benefits received” (1960: 170), and the idea of politeness as akin to a social payment (cf. Werkhofer  [1992] 2005: 170-2, 182-7; Watts 2003: 115). However, unlike these researchers, we do not restrict reciprocity to social 'credits', but include social 'debits'. Reciprocity, in our view, is simply about maintaining a balance of social payments.

Of course, interlocutors do not always comply with reciprocity. For example, in accord with the 'surplus' approach (Kasper 1990; Watts [1992] 2005), one way of achieving politeness is  to respond to a formulaic ('politic') utterance with a more creatively polite one. Such deviations from reciprocity are of particular interest because they trigger further inferencing and/or reflect social constraints. The presentation will map out and illustrate a matrix of reciprocity options. This matrix plots options according to the interlocutors' (im)politeness thresholds and whether they match or not. In addition, it will describe our current work on reciprocity in the context of requestive exchanges. The interest here is whether the (im)politeness threshold of a request is matched by the (im)politeness threshold of the response. We have been developing a particular method to explore this, involving corpus data, informant testing and a statistical model.


Gouldner, Alvin W. 1960. The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement.  American Sociological Review:161–178.

Kasper, Gabriele. 1990. Linguistic politeness: Current research issues. Journal of Pragmatics 14 (2):193–218.

Watts, Richard J. [1992] 2005. Linguistic politeness research: Quo vadis? In: Richard J. Watts, Sachiko Ide, and Konrad Ehlich (eds.) Politeness in Language: Studies in its History, Theory and Practice (2nd edn) Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. xi-xlvii.

Watts, Richard J. 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Werkhofer, Konrad T. [1992] 2005. Traditional and modern views: The social constitution and the power of politeness. In: Richard J. Watts, Sachiko Ide, and Konrad Ehlich (eds.) Politeness in Language: Studies in its History, Theory and Practice (2nd edn) Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 155-99.

CLiC: studying literature in the digital age

michaela Mahlberg (University of Birmingham)

14th march 2018

The CLiC Dickens project demonstrates through corpus stylistics how computer-assisted methods can be used to study literary texts and lead to new insights into how readers perceive fictional characters. The project was funded by the AHRC and resulted in the development of the web app CLiC (Corpus Linguistics in Context), designed specifically for the analysis of literary texts. This talk will demonstrate how CLiC can be used to support stylistic analysis.

A processing and language-based typology of poetic difficulty

Davide Castiglione (Vilnius University)

7th march 2018

This talks presents some recent conceptual refinements of my difficulty model. In particular, it posits the need for three cognitive-behavioural dimensions (accessibility, readability and interpretability) mediating between poetic difficulty as a response phenomenon and the linguistic strategies prompting it at the textual level. An important consequence of this refinement is a much firmer theoretical distinction between difficulty and obscurity, as well as the development of four aesthetic typologies solidly grounded in the textuality of poems: 1) processing baseline (high on accessibility, readability and interpretability); 2) transient difficulty (low on accessibility and readability, high on interpretability); 3) permanent difficulty (low on accessibility, readability and interpretability), of which I identify two subtypes: the chaotic poem (impeded interpretability) and the nonsensical one (unacceptable interpretability). Each type will be exemplified in stylistic terms and compared to previous typological attempts, notably Steiner (1978).

Semantic change in science fiction: a cognitive, corpus stylistic approach

louise nuttall (university of huddersfield)

14th february 2018

Corpus linguistic research has examined how new or existing words acquire meaning over time by examining the contexts in which they occur. Central to such analysis is the idea that collocational patterns can imbue words with connotational meaning, often termed semantic prosody or semantic preference (Louw 1993; Hunston 2007). In this paper, I adopt a corpus-assisted approach (O’Halloran 2007) to investigate the way in which readers come to understand unfamiliar or ambiguous language in a science fiction context.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) describes what seems to be an idyllic boarding school childhood for its narrator, Kathy. Readers are invited to comprehend the sinister reality which underlies Kathy’s childhood gradually, through the opaque references she provides throughout her narrative. Familiar words such as ‘carer’, ‘donor’ and ‘guardian’ progressively gain an alternative, darker meaning in the course of the text. By the end of the novel, we understand that in this alternative reality these words mean almost their opposite.

Uses of these words across the novel are examined through concordancing and comparison with collocations in the British National Corpus. Drawing on concepts from cognitive stylistics, I describe readers’ processing of these cohesive references across the text in terms of reference point chains (Langacker 2008) and burying (Sanford and Emmott 2012). I argue that, through a cumulative manipulation of these words and their meanings in a science fiction context, this text reveals processes by which language can disguise truths and normalise atrocities in the real-world.



Hunston, S. (2007) ‘Semantic prosody revisited’, International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 12(2): 249-68.

Ishiguro, K. (2005) Never Let Me Go. London: Faber and Faber.

Langacker, R. W. (2008) Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Louw, B. (1993) ‘Irony in the text or insincerity in the writer?’ In Text and Technology: in honour of John Sinclair (pp. 169–189). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

O’Halloran, K. (2007) ‘The subconscious in James Joyce’s `Eveline’: a corpus stylistic analysis that chews on the `Fish hook’’. Language and Literature, 16(3), 227–244.

Sanford, A., & Emmott, C. (2012) Mind, Brain and Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

What the /fᴧk/? An acoustic-pragmatic analysis of implicated meaning in a scene from The Wire

Erica Gold and Dan McIntyre (university of huddersfield)

7th February 2018

In the critically-acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, Detectives Jimmy McNulty and William ‘Bunk’ Moreland are investigating old homicide cases. They are revisiting the case of a young woman shot dead in her apartment, and visit the scene of the crime to try and figure out how the woman was killed. The two detectives communicate with each other using only the word fuck and its variants (e.g. motherfucker, fuckity fuck, etc.). However, the viewer is able to understand what McNulty and Bunk mean when they communicate despite using such a restricted set of words.

This paper examines the acoustic properties in the vowel realizations of fuck in combination with pragmatic classifications of the utterances to determine whether the production styles play a role in expressing meaning. All tokens of fuck were categorized using modified pre-existing classifications McEnery & Xiao (2004) and Murphy (2009). Formants and duration were measured for all vowels, and multinomial regression and box plots were used to examine the relationships between meaning and productions.

The results show that the duration of the vowels produced had a strong relationship with the meaning being conveyed – a long duration was associated with disbelief/realization, and shorter durations were more associated with insults/functional uses. Furthermore, our results shed new light on what for linguists is an old problem: how do we make sense of what people say when speakers so very rarely say exactly what they mean? Research in pragmatics suggests that we infer meaning when people break conversational norms (e.g. Grice 1989; Levinson 2000). In the scene from The Wire, while it is clear that the characters are breaking normal conventions, pragmatic accounts of implicature cannot explain how we infer such a range of meaning from such limited vocabulary. Our results suggest that this is because meaning is coming not via conversational implicature but is being conveyed at the phonetic level.


Grice, H. Paul (1975) Logic and conversation. In Cole, Peter and Morgan, Jerry (eds) Syntax and Semantics. Vol. III: Speech Acts, pp. 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Levinson, Stephen (2000) Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McEnery, Anthony & Xiao, Richard. (2004) Swearing in modern British English: the case of “fuck” in the BNC. Language and Literature 13(3): 235-68.

Murphy, Brona (2009) “She's a fucking ticket”: the pragmatics of fuck in Irish English – an age and gender perspective. Corpora 4(1): 85-106.