Research Seminars

Research seminars

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.