Introductory Blog – Hanna Schmueck

I am very honoured to have received the Geoffrey Leech Outstanding MA Student Award for my MA in Language and Linguistics. This award traditionally goes to the MA student with the highest overall average.

I started my postgraduate journey in September 2019 after finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Bamberg (Germany) in 2018 and working as a freelance translator and teacher for a year. I’ve always had an interest in the way language influences us both as individuals and as a society and have carried with me a fascination for experimentation and statistics. I first discovered corpus linguistics in the second year of my undergraduate degree, it soon after cemented itself as my primary research interest. I chose a corpus-based project for my undergraduate dissertation on pronouns in the English-lexifier lingua franca Bislama. From here I realised that much of the relevant methodological literature had been published by Lancaster academics – which cemented my decision to apply at Lancaster despite having to move abroad and face a number of Brexit-related administrative hurdles.

When I finally came to Lancaster for my MA, I felt welcome in the department from day one and I had the chance to attend/audit a wide variety of modules such as Cognitive Linguistics, Experimental Approaches to Language and Cognition, Forensic Linguistics, Stylistics, and Corpus Linguistics. The freedom of choice that Lancaster MA students in Language and Linguistics are given was another major motivation for studying at Lancaster and the flexible approach really benefited my personal learning experience. Another important element of my academic learning experience was being able to attend research groups – such as the Trinity group and UCREL talks –which focus on a wide variety of topics and allow you to come into contact with people that have all kinds of specialisms while getting the opportunity to develop your own research interests further.

I had, like all of us, not foreseen that my MA would move online in spring and all the challenges COVID-19 would bring about, but after the first phase of getting used to the situation I tried my best to see this as an opportunity to focus on my MA thesis titled “More than the sum of its parts: Collocation networks in the written section of the BNC2014 Baby+”. The aim of this thesis was to explore corpus-wide collocation networks and their structural and graph-theoretical properties using the BNC2014 Baby+ as the underlying dataset. I developed a method to create and display large MI2-score based weighted networks in order to analyse meta-level collocational patterns that emerge and performed a graph-theoretical analysis on them. The results obtained from this pilot study suggested that there is an underlying structure that all sections in the BNC2014 Baby+ share and the structure of the generated networks resembles other networks from a wide variety of phenomena such as power grids, social networks, and networks of brain neurons. The findings indicated that there are, however, text-type specific differences in terms of how connected different topic areas are and that certain words serve as hubs connecting topics with one another. The network displayed below is an example taken from the BNC Baby+ academic books section with a filter applied to only show the node “award”, its direct neighbours and their weighted interrelations.

I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to learn from and exchange ideas with so many amazing academics in the department over the course of my MA and I’m very excited to carry on researching collocation networks for my PhD here at Lancaster.

ICR Outstanding Corpus Thesis Award for Lancaster PhD graduate

I am honoured to have received the Institute for Corpus Research Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Award. The purpose of this annual award is to recognise and reward theses in the field of Corpus Linguistics.

I conducted my PhD research in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science at Lancaster University, which is part of Department of Linguistics and English Language. My thesis was titled Collocational Processing in Typologically Different Languages, English and Turkish: Evidence from Corpora and Psycholinguistic Experimentation. Some of the findings based on my PhD research are reported in this article. The study was multidisciplinary, involving both corpus analysis and psycholinguistic experimentation. Supervisors Dr Vaclav Brezina and Prof Patrick Rebuschat played a key role in shaping the thesis. Their academic knowledge and insight have been invaluable in developing a multidisciplinary perspective to pioneer a contrastive study of English and Turkish.

Turkish, with its rich morphology, differs from English – prompting questions about whether the same variables affect collocational processing in the two languages. Importantly, so far the vast majority of research on collocational processing has focussed on a narrow range of primarily European languages, especially English, which makes it difficult to generalise the findings to other languages. Corpus analyses showed that uninflected collocations have similar mean frequencies and association counts in both languages. When inflected forms were included, 75% of the Turkish collocations occurred at a higher frequency than the collocations in English, suggesting that language typology impacts frequency of collocations.

I then conducted psycholinguistic experiments to understand the differences and similarities between the processing of collocations in English and Turkish and by native and non-native English speakers. To what extent is there a difference between native-speakers’ (of English and Turkish) sensitivity to both individual word-level and phrase level frequency information when processing collocations? Mixed-effects regression modelling revealed that Turkish and English native-speakers are equally sensitive to collocation frequencies, confirming collocations’ psychological reality in both languages. Yet English speakers were additionally affected by individual word-frequencies, indicating that language typologies require users to process collocations from different sources of information.

Furthermore, this thesis investigated the effects of individual word and collocational frequency on native and non-native speakers’ collocational processing in English. Both groups of participants demonstrated sensitivity to individual word and collocation frequency. The findings align with the predictions of usage-based approaches that language acquisition should be viewed as a statistical accumulation of experiences that changes every time we encounter a particular utterance.

This study identified both universal fundamentals and language-specific differences in collocational processing. It addressed language typology and second-language learning through a novel multidisciplinary approach which reinforces and challenges usage-based theories of language learning, demonstrating that they should include typologically different languages to develop broader perspectives on processing.

Please see the link here for more information about this award.

If you have any questions, or are interested in working with me, get in touch. Dr Doğuş Can Öksüz Research fellow at the University of Leeds. d.oksuz@leeds.ac.uk

Questioning Vaccination Discourse (Quo VaDis): A Corpus-based Study

A new three-year project based in CASS will use corpus linguistic methods to study how vaccinations (including future vaccines for Covid-19) are talked about in the UK press, UK parliamentary discourse and social media. Through collaborations with governmental and public health partners, the findings will be used to help address vaccine hesitancy, which is one of the World Health Organizations top 10 global health challenges.

The project will start in March 2021 and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.

To find out more, read Lancaster University’s announcement and watch a brief introduction to the project by Principal Investigator Elena Semino.

English language assessment and training for medical professionals

Proficiency in English is crucial for effective and appropriate medical communication and U.K. regulating bodies for nurse and doctor practitioners use standardised tests (such as IELTS, OET, TOEFL) to assess English proficiency of non-UK/EU applicants.

The aim of this project is to investigate a corpus of authentic clinical interactions to identify patterns of interaction and language used by health professionals and as such, determine how well the English tests taken by applicants reflect English as used in ‘real life’ encounters. Our investigation will help us to identify the key communication skills required to deliver effective clinical care and allow us to support industrial partners with specific recommendations for language assessment and training for healthcare staff.

With a broad focus on the various participant roles within the patient journey through Emergency Departments, we are investigating how the language used by patients, nurses, doctors and other hospital staff reflects their various responsibilities and status. Specifically, we focus on the following aspects of language: –

Questions: which participants ask questions throughout the encounter? How are they phrased and to what do they refer? How do health professionals check understanding?

Directives: how do health professionals issue instructions? What types of mitigation or hedging are used?

Openings: how do the participants introduce themselves and establish their roles? Do health professionals use names/titles?

Pronouns: how do participants establish and maintain individual/collective identities through the use of pronouns?

Small talk: how and when do health professionals engage in small talk with patients? Or with other health professionals?

Empathy: how do we evidence expressions of empathy in the data? What kinds of empathy phrases do we observe and does this differ according to role?

Our approach is designed to identify those recurring interactional features of Emergency Department encounters that can help inform the teaching and assessment procedures that prepare candidates for the ‘real world’ of healthcare communication.

Team

Dr Dana Gablasova (https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/linguistics/about/people/dana-gablasova) (Lead Investigator)

Dr Luke Collins (https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/linguistics/about/people/luke-collins) (Senior Research Associate)

Dr Vaclav Brezina (https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/linguistics/about/people/vaclav-brezina) (Co-Investigator)

Dr John Pill (https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/linguistics/about/people/john-pill) (Co-Investigator)

CASS joins International Consortium for Communication in Health Care

We are delighted to announce that we are joining the International Consortium for Communication in Health Care. The Consortium is led by the Australian National University, and also includes University College London, Nanyang Technological University, the University of Hong Kong and Queensland University of Technology. The aim of the Consortium is to conduct research that increases understanding of communication about illness in clinical and non-clinical settings, and to translate research findings into changes in education and practice that will improve the experiences and safety of patients.

You can read more about the launch of the Consortium here: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/news/lancaster-university-linguists-will-help-improve-global-healthcare-communication

And here is a video introducing the Consortium’s aims and partners: https://vimeo.com/459184068/155158b30b

 

PhD conference prize for James Balfour

I am honoured to have received the award for “student research with the most potential for impact” at the 2020 Corpora and Discourse International conference this year. The award, which included a prize of £150, was sponsored by Palgrave and decided through nominations from conference attendees. The talk can be accessed online here: https://corporadiscourse.com/healthcare-representations-videos/

The findings are part of a larger project examining how people with schizophrenia are portrayed in British newspapers. While symptoms of schizophrenia, which include auditory and visual hallucinations (e.g. ‘hearing voices’), affect roughly 1 in 100 people, most of the general public obtain all their understanding of the disorder from the media. This is because most people are unlikely to have first-hand experiences of people with the disorder. After all, people with mental illnesses are not visually identifiable (in the way people with some physical disabilities are) and, as a consequence, no one could identify someone with schizophrenia from just the way they look. Moreover, another symptom people with schizophrenia often experience is social withdrawal, which means that some people diagnosed with the disorder may avoid contact with others. It is therefore crucial that the media provides accurate and tolerant portrayals of people with schizophrenia so that the general public can understand the disorder and are encouraged to treat people with the disorder with respect and compassion.

My talk focussed on differences between the language used to represent people with schizophrenia in the British tabloids and broadsheets. To compare differences, I identified words which were significantly more frequent in either dataset relative to the other. This identified words which were distinctive to either the tabloids or broadsheets reportage on schizophrenia. What I found was that these words converged around a distinctive topic for each dataset. In the tabloids, this distinctive topic was “crime”. These words referred to the sentencing and imprisonment of criminals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, or the risks posed deinstitutionalising patients from hospital. Hence, a distinctive feature of the reporting in the tabloids was the tendency to represent people with schizophrenia as dangerous. For instance, the following example from The Star reports a story where a patient with schizophrenia has been deinstitutionalised.

BLUNDERS FREED KILLER FROM MENTAL HOSPITAL. A SERIES of errors left a crazed killer at large to stab to death a hero detective. (The Star, 20 May 2005).

Notice how the individual is referred to twice as a killer, which reduces the identity of the individual to their crime. Other aspects of the patient’s identity and their circumstances – noticeably the patient’s own mental distress – are left unmentioned. Instead, he is referred to as crazed, which is a simplistic and dismissive representation of his mental health issues. The fact that he is represented as a killer even before reference is made to his crime even seems to mislead us into thinking that he had committed murder before being deinstitutionalised, which was not the case.

Instead, a distinctive topic in the broadsheets was “art and culture”. These words occur in stories in where a link is posited between psychosis and creativity. For instance, in the following excerpt from The Telegraph, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd is praised for offering in his work a representation of what the journalist paradoxically calls a genuine manic fantasy, which is contrasted with the lets-pretend of contemporary artists who do not experience psychosis. This suggests that Dadd’s paintings are more valuable than those of other artists because they provide insights into an unusual sensory experience.

Oberon and Titania (1854/58) by the schizophrenic Richard Dadd offers genuine manic fantasy, as opposed to the tiresome let’s-pretend of so much of the art of his contemporaries. (The Telegraph, 21 September 2003).

Linking schizophrenia with creativity is part of a much broader stereotype whereby people with health issues are viewed as gifted in a particular enterprise. A more obvious example of this is the stereotypical association between autism and mathematical prowess. These representations, while being more positive, may lead people to have expectations of people with schizophrenia than they are likely unable to or do not want to meet.

A distinctive feature of both tabloids and broadsheets, therefore, is to represent people with schizophrenia as different – as undesirably different and desirably different, respectively. However, most people with schizophrenia are neither dangerous criminals nor talented artists but normal people trying to live their lives. While it is understandable that the press likes to report on unusual people, this inevitably leads to a distorted picture of people with schizophrenia which exacerbates misunderstandings and prejudiced beliefs. Life can be difficult for people diagnosed with schizophrenia already without them having to face the additional problem of being burdened with inaccurate expectations reproduced by the media. Using findings like these, the project looks to working closely with journalists and charities to make the language we use around schizophrenia more accurate and tolerant.

For more details about this project see: http://cass.lancs.ac.uk/author/james-balfour/ If you have any questions or observations, please contact me via j.balfour@lancaster.ac.uk

PhD conference prize for Mark Wilkinson

At the 2020 Corpora and Discourse International Conference, I was very honoured to receive an award for the conference paper “showing the greatest methodological innovation or reflexivity by a student researcher”. The award was sponsored by the Applied Corpus Linguistics journal and included a prize of £250. This year’s online conference, hosted by the University of Sussex, featured a wide variety of brilliant research from students around the world. That I was nominated for the award makes me truly humble and I am especially grateful to my supervisor, Professor Paul Baker, for all his support and guidance during my doctoral research. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you a summary of my talk which is titled: “Black or gay or Jewish or whatever”: A diachronic corpus-based discourse analysis of how the UK’s LGBTQI population came to be represented as secular, cisgender, gay, white and male (available to watch here: https://corporadiscourse.com/language-gender-sexuality-videos/).

This talk emerged from my PhD research in which I aim to map how The Times has used language to discursively construct LGBTQI identities in the UK over the past 60 years. I’m particularly interested in the histories of identity and this is why I’ve chosen to take a diachronic approach, collecting many decades of language data from one of the UK’s most influential broadsheets. This focus on history is based on the assumption adapted from post-structuralist discourse theory (Laclau & Mouffe 1985) that all identities are partially the result of consistent choices in representation made over a sustained period of time.

In order to garner a sense of which discourses have been consistent, I decided to look at both consistent keywords and consistent collocates. This revealed several currents running through the corpus. First, in spite of the fact that the search terms used to build the corpus reflected the inherent diversity within the LGBTQI population, the majority of key terms pertained to gay men. This indicates that the history of queer representation in The Times is primarily their history while the histories of lesbian, bisexual, trans and gender non-conforming people have been largely erased or obfuscated. Second, an analysis of consistent collocates for the word gay showed that additional identifications such as Black and Jewish were statistically significant from the 1980s onward. A closer analysis of the newspaper articles that featured this usage showed that such terms were used in one of two ways. First, Black and Jewish were often used as marked terms which implied that such intersecting identities were exceptional. I would therefore argue that this markedness implies the presumed whiteness and non-Jewishness of the archetypal gay man as presumed by The Times. Secondly, the terms Black and gay as well as Jewish and gay were often presented as mutually exclusive categories. In other words, individuals were represented as being either black or gay, but never both. Cumulatively, it was argued that the history of LGBTQI representation in The Times suggests that through consistent choices in representation over a sustained period of time, the queer population of the UK came to be represented as secular, cisgender, gay, white and male. But, as there was never any use of the term white, how could I make this claim?

Drawing on the intellectual tradition of critical race theory (Baldwin 1963; Crenshaw 1990; Morrison 1992; Hall 1997), I argued that ‘race’ – while certainly a lived experience with material consequences – is not simply a neutral taxonomy of phenotypical differences between people, but is rather an ideological construct that functions as a structuring force in society such that certain bodies are given more value than others. Within this racialised matrix, whiteness is not only privileged, but is passed off as neutral and universal – an unmarked category that functions largely by ‘erasing its own tracks’ (Trechter and Bucholtz 2001:10). From a linguistic perspective then, whiteness functions ‘much like a linguistic sign, taking its meaning from those surrounding categories to which it is structurally opposed’ (Trechter and Bucholtz 2001:5). Therefore, in the data from The Times, the racialisation of gay men as Black, necessarily implies that the whiteness of all other gay men is indeed the implied universal.

In conclusion, it was argued that these cumulative processes are not benign, but rather indicate how the power of language can erase entire groups of people from popular discourse. Furthermore, the combination of corpus data with theories from both within and beyond linguistics is essential in mapping the discursive construction and representation of identities.

References:

Baldwin, J. (1963). The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial Press.

Crenshaw, K., (1990). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review43, p.1241.

Hall, S. (1997). ‘The spectacle of ‘the other’’. In Hall, S. (ed) (1997) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage.

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics. London: Verso.

Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trechter, S. and Bucholtz, M. (2001). ‘Introduction: White noise: Bringing language into whiteness studies’. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 11(1), pp.3-21.

 

 

 

From careful to careless reporting: The effect of COVID-19 on the representation of Islam and Muslims – Isobelle Clarke

In my current position, funded by the Aziz Foundation, in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences at Lancaster University, I am investigating the representation of Muslims and Islam in the UK press. Previous research has revealed the major press representations of Islam and Muslims between 1998 to 2009 and between 2010 to 2014 in order to assess how much has changed. One of my aims in this project is to develop and extend that research in order to assess if the major press representations of Muslims and Islam from January 2015 to December 2019 have changed or stayed the same since those time periods investigated. That research is very much under way and I am looking forward to writing up the results and sharing them with you. But (and I am sure it is the same for anyone else looking at the representations of different social phenomena or groups in the media), it already feels like so much has happened since December 2019 and I felt it was important to address this.

When I started the project I was quickly introduced to the Muslim Council of Britain’s (MCB) Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM) team. At our first meeting we sat around a table at their offices in White Chapel and spoke about our aims for the project. We immediately found similarities of approach and a shared purpose – to identify negative trends and promote positive practice in the media’s representation of Islam and Muslims. They asked me how I had become interested in this research and I remember mentioning how infuriated I was with Boris Johnson’s opinion piece in the Telegraph on Denmark’s banning of the burqa. In that piece he positioned Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa as being in a ‘catch 22’, whereby they can never be ‘free’ for as long as they wear a burqa because even if they choose to wear it, according to Boris, it is still a ‘dehumanising garment’. I drew parallels with rape victims who are interrogated and accused of ‘asking for it’ by the cross-examiner for wearing a dress that falls above the knee and/or high heels. We each shared our own frustrations and I suddenly realised that whilst I was aware of many problems in the reporting of Islam and Muslims, I was about to fall down the biggest rabbit hole, where I would never be able to look at a report on Muslims or Islam without seeing some form of bias or misrepresentation.

During this COVID-19 global pandemic, I have found myself reading and/or listening to the media far more than I have before. With an increased sensitivity to the media and being 6 months deep into this rabbit hole, I have noticed that reporting on Islam and Muslims has shifted.

In previous research investigating the representation of Islam and Muslims, it was found that much had stayed the same since 1998-2009 when reporting on Islam and Muslims between 2010-2014; however there were cases where things had changed and reporting had become more careful in trying to represent what had happened accurately and fairly. For instance, there was a growing acknowledgement that Islam has several different denominations. Between 1998 to 2009, these different denominations were rarely referred to or distinguished in the press. However, press reports concerning Islam and Muslims during 2010 to 2014 were referring to the different denominations more often than before. This was a positive improvement as it promoted religious literacy and better represented which groups of Muslims were involved in an event, rather than ascribing the event to all Muslims.

Despite these attempts at trying to include as much detail as possible to avoid misrepresentation, during the pandemic careful reporting appears to have been de-emphasised. A report’s accuracy now comes second to the spectacle of sensationalist reporting that fits a familiar narrative. In other words, the press have gone backwards.

Whilst I have noticed many instances of problematic reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one consistent narrative that ties many of them together. This narrative is affiliated to the “Us versus Them” dichotomy, especially the positive presentation of ‘Us’ and the negative presentation of ‘Them’. However, the reports extend this to present ‘Us’ as rule-followers and ‘Them’ as rule-breakers, where ‘Them’ are Muslims who have been scapegoated as a threat to ‘Us’ – the rest of society (i.e. Non-Muslims). In the rest of this blog, I will contextualise and describe a very specific example of this discourse and attempt to articulate the effects of such careless and reckless reporting.

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan happened during the COVID-19 pandemic from 23 April 2020 to 23 May 2020. During Ramadan, many Muslims fast between dawn and sunset as a way to show their devotion to their faith and come closer to God. There is also a special festival at the end of Ramadan called Eid al-Fitr, which means the festival of the breaking of the fast. Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer, doing good deeds and spending time with family and friends. It is a time where Muslims make a special effort to connect with their communities and help those in need. Of course, during the pandemic with worldwide lockdown restrictions, Ramadan, and many other events, happened a little differently.

The PM of the UK Boris Johnson announced on 23rd March 2020 that people in the UK must stay at home and that they can only leave to:

  • shop for basic necessities,
  • exercise once per day
  • provide care to a vulnerable person
  • attend to a medical need or
  • travel to work but only where necessary and if it can’t be done from home.

In addition, Boris Johnson ordered places of worship, restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs, and a number of retail stores to close. Large gatherings were banned and many other rules and restrictions were put in place to try and curb the spread of the virus. Such restrictions and lockdown measures meant that normal and traditional Ramadan festivities could not take place. Muslims couldn’t go to the mosque to pray, they couldn’t break their fast or celebrate Eid with their communities, family members or friends living in different households.

Before these restrictions even came into place and before Ramadan began, the Muslim Council of Britain had urged all mosques to close and they set out specific guidance for Ramadan during this unique time. This guidance provided details of how to adhere to the government’s lockdown restrictions and take part in this holy month of Ramadan. It also reassured Muslims that it was not necessary to go to the mosque to pray. Despite this very clear, explicit guidance that adhered to the government’s restrictions, the media were nevertheless focused on presenting Muslims as a threat to the rest of society because they either were going to break the rules during Ramadan, or may do so. For example, on the 12th April 2020 the Sunday Times had the headline:

“Experts fear spike in cases when families gather for Ramadan”

This headline is problematic for several reasons. First, it is factually incorrect. There was one ‘expert’, not more than one, as denoted by the plural Experts. In the context of this story, one might imagine that an expert would be someone who is an epidemiologist (one who studies the spread of infection) or mathematician (one who models and predicts the spread of infectious diseases). Yet the expert referred to in the Sunday Times is a consultant transplant nephrologist (someone who deals with kidney transplants). Given that the spread of COVID-19 cannot be cured or prevented by a kidney transplant, it can be argued that the expert selected was not appropriate as they were not an expert in this context.

Second, the headline makes assumptions, which misrepresent the truth. The clause “when families gather for Ramadan” presupposes that families will gather for Ramadan in ways that do not abide by the lockdown regulations (i.e. gathering with your family members from different households). This headline consequently problematised Muslims before Ramadan had even begun. It suggested that Muslims may be intending to break the rules wilfully for Ramadan. Muslims were therefore positioned as a threat to the rest of society as they were scapegoated for a potential spike in cases of COVID-19.

Following critique from the Centre for Media Monitoring, The Sunday Times corrected their headline:

“Expert fears a spike in UK coronavirus cases if communities gather for Ramadan”.

Although the expertise of the expert was not addressed, the change from the WH-clause to the conditional clause “if communities gather for Ramadan” makes this headline far less accusatory and presuppositional. Instead, it positions a spike in UK coronavirus cases as a potential consequence if people are to gather for Ramadan. Whilst the assumption that communities could gather for Ramadan is still present, in the new version it is not assumed that all Muslims will ignore the rules and gather for Ramadan.

Even though the Sunday Times made these corrections, it is important to note that the major problem with this report is that the scapegoating of Muslims in the UK press is unfair and disproportionate. Good Friday and Easter Sunday also fell during the tight lockdown restrictions. However, an article that implied that all Christian families and communities would break the rules in order to gather and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, or to take their families on Easter Egg hunts, did not appear in the Times or the Sunday Times. Christians make up more of the UK’s population than Muslims and so on numerical grounds alone they pose a greater risk of spreading the infection and causing a spike if they were to break the rules. Therefore, the focus on and scapegoating of Muslims is unfair.

Overall, the underlying narrative ‘Muslims as rule breakers’ is an articulation of the “Us versus Them” dichotomy, where Muslims are “Them” positioned in opposition to “Non-Muslims”. In the context of COVID-19, ‘Them’ are rule breakers, who are threats to the health of society, and so once again we find the UK press demonising Muslims and marking them as threats to society.

So many people and organisations are helped by Muslims in their charity work throughout the year and especially during Ramadan, when Muslims make a special effort to help those in need. This charity work has not stopped during the pandemic, but it has just taken different forms. For example, mosques in Liverpool have launched a helpline for the whole community to provide support during the pandemic. Additionally, volunteers from Newcastle Central mosque have launched a COVID-19 support group by delivering essential supplies, such as food and medicine to those in need and who are self-isolating. These emergency parcels are delivered for free and funded by the One Ummah charity. There are so many more examples of positive work being led by Muslims than there are negative, but these positive stories tend to be reported in the local as opposed to national press.

During these unprecedented times, it can be very easy to look for people or groups to blame, and when the press consistently demonise particular groups, those groups are even easier to accuse. This small blog is a call to go back to striving towards careful and accurate reporting. Let us change the narrative. #PositivelyMuslim

 

Slavery in the News – Slaves and Slavery in the Liverpool Mercury in the Nineteenth Century – Helen Baker

Last month, Tony McEnery and I completed a study which looked at changes in the representation of slavery in a prominent provincial newspaper, the Liverpool Mercury, throughout the nineteenth century. This will appear in the book Time in Languages, Languages in Time (Čermáková et al, forthcoming) which brings together a collection of articles reflecting on language and time: how language changes over time and how time is perceived across various languages. In this blog post we give a sense of the main findings of our work.

Using Usage Fluctuation Analysis (UFA, McEnery, Baker and Brezina, 2019) we searched almost two billion words of newspaper articles from the Liverpool Mercury to see how words linked to slavery changed their usage in the nineteenth century. While the chapter we wrote covers much in the way of method, in this brief blog post we want to focus on one aspect of our work by showing, through the lens of the Mercury, how nineteenth-century Liverpudlians felt about the traffic of enslaved Africans, their city’s association with the slave trade and how these feelings changed over time, if at all.

Our study has proven to be topical. A few days ago, it was reported in the press that the University of Liverpool had made the decision to rename a halls of residence known as Gladstone Hall. The former British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, had strong family links to the transatlantic slave trade and early in his career made a speech against its abolition. His father, John, owned a number of sugar and coffee plantations in Demerara (now part of Guyana) and Jamaica. Like other men who profited from the slave trade, John Gladstone matched his economic success with political clout – he served as a Tory member of parliament for three different constituencies and he partly owned the newspaper Liverpool Courier.

The city of Liverpool, where the Gladstone family lived, was one of Britain’s principal trading ports, sitting at the corner of the so-called ‘golden triangle’ which drove the transatlantic slave trade. Vessels from Liverpool are estimated to have carried 40 per cent of the entire Atlantic slave trade and controlled up to 60 per cent of the British trade (Sherwood and Sherwood, 2007: 26) and the historian Brian Howman (2007: 277) has explained that, by the end of the eighteenth century, the livings of most Liverpudlians were bound up with the slave trade. Importantly, through the trade in cotton and manufactured goods with the United States, Liverpool retained strong economic links to a slave-owning economy for most of the nineteenth century. So, while emancipation of slaves occurred in the early part of the century throughout the British Empire, Liverpool retained a strong economic interest in slavery.

UFA helped us to make sense of a large volume of data by showing the changing usage of words like slave, slaves and slavery over the course of the century. Based on that, we were then able to downsample and explore the corpus, using techniques such as collocation analysis and close reading, to see how the discussion of slavery varied over time. What the UFA, and our follow up analysis, shows in the Mercury are three broad phases of discussion – the early part of the century is dominated by debates relating to abolition in the British Empire, which we will not discuss here. Instead, in this short blog post we will focus on the second phase of the debate, when it widened as a desire to end the slave trade beyond Britain increased. We will also note the third and final phase of the discussion, in which slavery slipped into historic memory. Let us begin with an exploration of phase two, which we call ‘a widening debate’.

A widening debate – doing more to oppose slavery

In the second phase of discussion the Liverpool Mercury did not shy away from discussing the slave trade. Within its pages, Liverpool’s past involvement in the traffic of enslaved black Africans was acknowledged and journalists conveyed a determination that any further participation must not be tolerated. The newspaper gave the impression that the vast majority of the inhabitants of the city were united against slavery. Indeed, when William Gladstone received the freedom of the city in December 1892, the Mercury reported an older, more liberal, Gladstone as saying that “we all look back with shame and sorrow” on the traffic of Africans.

However, there were also suggestions that Liverpool should be active, or more active, in opposing the slave trade. On 3 November, 1868, the newspaper carried a speech by the Bishop of Oxford who declared that Liverpool’s strong connection with the slave trade meant that the city must “be connected with the act of undoing it”. Occasional reports berated Liverpool for not speaking out to a greater extent. For instance, a letter published on 12 October, 1875 condemned the city for not protesting against the Slave Circulars – contentious instructions to ships captains that fugitive slaves should be returned to their former masters:

While other towns are protesting against the atrocities and illegal actions of the Tory       Government, how is it that Liverpool is silent?

The newspaper also acknowledged that Liverpool was struggling to throw off its associations with the slave trade entirely. An article of 4 June 1862, for instance, condemned American slave traders who had established themselves in Liverpool. The slave ship, Nightingale, was reported to have been fitted out in the city. The reporter asserted that the people of Liverpool “are interested in discovering and bringing to justice ruffians who attempt to turn a British port into a slave-trading station”.

A widening debate – the geographic dimension

As the debate shifted from abolition in the British Empire, reports in the Liverpool Mercury revealed how Britain struggled to persuade other countries, particularly other empires, to agree to abolition. Articles detailed an array of diplomatic overtures – draft treaties, international assemblies, and outright bribes – designed to achieve this which were often unsuccessful. In the earlier part of the second phase of discussion, reluctance by France, Portugal and Spain to agree to abolition tended to be highlighted. Later the focus shifted to Cuba and Brazil, colonies of Spain and Portugal respectively. For instance, on 23 September, 1853 an article stated:

The commercial advices from Cuba state that the question of the slave trade continues to give constant trouble to the official representatives of the British government in that island. Open violations of treaty are almost of weekly occurrence, and, under the active connivance of the Spanish authorities, the traffic is obviously increasing.

In later part of the widening debate phase, countries such as Egypt and Turkey were cast into the spotlight with drafts of treaties with both countries being reported, while a number of articles referred to an alliance with the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, aimed at curtailing the slave trade .

A widening debate – anti-slavery opinion

Many articles about the slave trade in the Liverpool Mercury throughout the second phase we identified were pessimistic in tone. The newspaper frequently reported that slavery was actually growing in strength in the nineteenth century.

Just as we care about the origins of our food, people in the nineteenth century expressed alarm over the origins of one of the most important products produced by slaves – sugar. Some abolitionists pushed Britons to abstain from the consumption of slave-grown sugar and the Liverpool Mercury carried a number of articles about the consequences of removing high protective tariffs on imported sugar and molasses. In stark contrast to the present day, sugar was presented as both “wholesome and nutritious” (article of 7 April, 1843) and an item which poorer people should be able to afford.

Britain had prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 but the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery itself in the British Empire, was not put in place until 1833. Articles in the Mercury suggest that the British public felt impatient with the process of emancipation. In May 1823, the newspaper wrote about public petitions by the inhabitants of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle for the abolition of slavery. Indeed, the abolition campaign has been called the first popular movement and was characterised by mass meetings and petition campaigns (Thomas, 1998: 12 and Drescher, 1994). A letter of 28 March, 1823 to the editor of the Liverpool Mercury lamented the material condition of enslaved Africans in stark, emotive language:

We do not hear the groans of the slaves: we do not behold the uplifted arm of the insulting and brutalized driver: the smack of his whip does not resound in our ears… Our best feelings are not shocked by the sight of his lacerated body; nor are we horrified by exhibition of instances which have been attested to exist in the West Indies, of persons, in whose neglected wounds even maggots have bred. We do not witness the rupture of all ties of domestic relationship: we do not see the violation of all the tender charities of life; the child torn from its parents; and the wife carried away from her husband, to be subjected to the brutal lust of a tyrant.

Journalists also employed emotionally charged language in writing about the slave trade – words such as miseries, atrocities, inhumanity, injustice, abomination and victims were all very common. In the first decades of the century, newspaper articles described shocking incidents where slaves had been deliberately thrown from slave ships by crew members who wanted to avoid being detained with slaves on board. However, as the century progressed, expressions such as horror/s of the slave trade and evil/s of the slave trade had become stock phrases, employed by reporters in order to demonstrate, very quickly and conveniently, their repulsion at the notion of the enslavement of humans. These reporters did not go on to elucidate why the trade was horrible; there was simply no need – by that time, the British public overwhelmingly despised the slave trade and was well aware of the horrors it entailed.

The final phase – the slave trade passes into history

Towards the end of the century, the discourse in the Mercury enters a third phase made distinct by an increase in mentions of works of art and literature which referenced the slave trade. Articles mentioned busts of early abolitionists, Graville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, books about the slave trade and implements of the slave trade, such as timber yokes and iron shackles, being put on display. The slave trade was passing into memory during this period – its early opponents were being honoured, it was being represented in art and literature, and objects used to enslave black Africans had been removed from ships and plantations and placed in museums.

Conclusion

News articles in the pages of the nineteenth-century Liverpool Mercury reveal a sense of shame and regret at the city’s involvement in the slave trade. Perhaps journalists working for the newspaper hoped their frequent condemnation of slavery might partially atone for their city’s former enthusiastic participation in it. Although there were some suggestions that a very small number of Liverpudlians had continued their associations with the slave trade, the newspaper gives us the impression that the vast majority of the city’s residents had turned away from it entirely and, moreover, regarded the traffic and ownership of human beings with utter revulsion. By the end of the century, the discussion of slavery is rooted firmly in the past.

References

Čermáková, A. , Egan, T., Hasselgård, H. & Rørvik, S. (Eds, forthcoming) Time in Languages, Language in Time. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Drescher, S. (1994), ‘Whose abolition? Popular pressure and the ending of the British slave trade’, Past and Present, 143, pp.136-166.

Howman, B. (2007), ‘Abolitionism in Liverpool’, in Richardson, D., Schwarz, S. and Tibbles, A. (eds.), Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, pp.277-296.

McEnery, T., Brezina, V. and Baker, H. (2019) ‘Usage fluctuation analysis: a new way of analysing shifts in historical discourse’, International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 24 (4), pp 413-444.

Sherwood, M. and Sherwood, K. (2007), Britain, the Slave Trade and Slavery, from 1562 to the 1880s. Kent: Savannah Press.

Thomas, H. (1998), The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. London: Papermac.

Isobelle Clarke Receives Leverhulme Trust’s Early Career Fellowship

I am so unbelievably pleased to announce that the Research Awards Advisory Committee at the Leverhulme Trust have granted me, Dr. Isobelle Clarke, the Leverhulme Trust’s Early Career Fellowship to conduct my research entitled “Understanding the linguistic repertoires across anti-science narratives” at Lancaster University in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences.

Science improves our everyday lives, especially science that is aimed at safeguarding and protecting public health and safety, such as by improving the air we breathe and the water we drink (Carter et al., 2019). Because of science, food is safe and plentiful, and diseases can be treated, cured, isolated and prevented from spreading (Siegel, 2017). Science also anticipates threats to the environment and natural disasters, like hurricanes and storms (Carter et al., 2019). Although scientific advancements can be misused accidentally or for ill, science nevertheless has led to the development of new technologies, which have enhanced many individuals’ quality of life to a level that could never have been expected previously (Siegel, 2017).

Despite these advances, in this modern world we live in, value judgements and personal experience can (and often do) take precedence over scientifically-accepted facts. Throughout Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency, we have witnessed an acceleration in the demonization of experts and knowledge. Throughout this COVID-19 pandemic we have heard the phrase “following the science”, but really it should be “following the science when it suits us” as our leaders ignore findings or utilise parts and not the whole to suit them (which, as many will already anticipate, will eventually lead to them pointing the finger at scientists demanding an explanation for where it all went wrong in order to demonise scientists and experts further). Making matters worse is a context of competing, manipulative and persuasive anti-science narratives, each claiming to be truth. These undermine the public’s chances of distinguishing fact from fiction. For example, after a conspiracy theory suggested the outbreak of COVID-19 was a result of 5G, many of us witnessed or read reports of the 5G masts in the West Midlands being vandalised and even burned down by members of the public. Stories such as these demonstrate that the advances in humanity’s safety and prosperity created by science are being significantly undermined and threatened by anti-science discourse and actions (Carter et al., 2019).

Anti-science views are not new. For example, the Leicester anti-vaccination movement began in the 19th century. But with limited public access to scientific sources and increasing access to non-scientific sources, especially via the internet, anti-science positions are becoming more pervasive, and include claims that i) the earth is flat; ii) a female biological mechanism exists to prevent pregnancy post-rape; iii) alternative medicines like homeopathy are effective; iv) climate change science is false v) genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous to human health; vi) stem-cell research has various pseudo-benefits; vii) autism can be cured with diet and viii) evolution theory is untrue (for further examples see Achenbach, 2015). Scientists have been asked to communicate their findings clearly and counter anti-scientism (Oreskes and Conway, 2010). But before we can begin to counter it, we first need to identify and understand its discourse. Anti-science discourse has been investigated through the optic of particular governments (Carter et al., 2019) or specific topics, such as anti-vaccination (Davis, 2019), anti-GMO (Cook et al., 2004), stem-cell research (Marcon, Murdoch and Caulfield, 2017), and climate denial discourse (Park, 2015). This research often details the development and the content of the anti-science position and discourses. However, little is known about the linguistic repertoires of contemporary anti-science discourses more generally and how they compare across topics. What are the linguistic mechanisms underpinning the persuasiveness of anti- science? Are there anti-science discourses that are shared across the topics, or does the discourse vary with the topic? How much linguistic variation do the anti-science topics display? To what degree are the anti-science communicative strategies more or less typical of particular topics? This fellowship will directly address these questions.

In this fellowship I will be developing and introducing a new methodological technique which combines corpus-assisted discourse studies (CADS) (Baker, 2006) – a methodological technique developed and used by researchers at Lancaster University to investigate the representations and discourses of social phenomena and groups – with the approach to corpus data I specialise in, Multi-Dimensional Analysis (MDA) (Biber, 1988).

I am honoured to receive this prestigious fellowship and I am truly grateful to Lancaster University in their support of me, especially my fellow colleagues in CASS.

As we all try to seek out help, advice and guidance in these unprecedented times, it has never been more important to understand how anti-science works across topics. So, wish me luck on this journey and I’ll see you at the end with my tin foil hat on.

I hope everyone is keeping safe and healthy.

My best wishes to you and your family.

References

Achenbach, A. (2015) Why do many reasonable people doubt science? National Geographic. Retrieved on 21/01/2020 from: https://ldld.samizdat.cc/2017/static/natgeo-Reasonable-People-Doubt-Science.pdf

Baker, P. (2006) Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum. Biber, D. (1988) Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carter, J., Berman, E., Desikan, A., Johnson, C. and Goldman, G. (2019) The State of Science in the Trump Era: Damage Done, Lessons Learned, and a Path to Progress. Center for Science and Democracy at the UCS.

Cook, G., Pieri, E. and Robbins, P. T. (2004) ‘The scientists think and the public feels’: Expert perceptions of the discourse of GM food. Discourse and Society 15(4): 433—449.

Davis, M. (2019) ‘Globalist war against humanity shifts into high gear’: Online anti-vaccination websites and ‘anti-public’ discourse. Public Understanding of Science 28(3): 357—371.

Marcon, A. R., Murdoch, B. and Caulfield, T. (2017) Fake news portrayals of stem cells and stem cell research. Regenerative Medicine 12(7): 765—775.

Oreskes, N. and Conway, E. M. (2010) Defeating the merchants of doubt. Nature 465(10): 686—687. Park, J. T. (2015) Climate change and capitalism. Consilience 14: 189—206.

Siegal, E. (2017) Humanity needs science to survive and thrive. Retrieved on 21/01/2020 from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2017/07/25/humanity-needs-science-to-survive-and-%20thrive/#74f409a628ce