Further explorations in ‘the Muslim world’

Doing a ten minute presentation is pretty tough – you have to be equally ruthless about what you leave out and what you include. But the benefits are potentially great – if you can present an idea well in ten minutes you are pretty sure that you will have your viewer’s attention. As anybody who has lectured knows, with longer talks, no matter how strong your delivery, attention starts to wander for some in the audience as the talk progresses! So when I had the opportunity to do a talk of 10-18 minutes for Lancaster TEDx, I immediately went for the option of 10 minutes. It was a nice challenge for me and I thought that the brevity of the talk would help me to get my message across. So I beavered away for a few weeks putting things in and taking things out, thinking about key messages and marshalling my data: if my TEDx talk looks spontaneous …. it was not. In fact I imagine few of them really are, in spite of them being presented in such a way as to make it appear that they are. A lot of work goes into them – and that is just from the speakers. The crew who organized and filmed the event at Lancaster worked amazingly hard as well.

So was it worth it? Well, I have had many kind notes since I did the talk thanking me for it. I have also had a fair number of views of my talk on-line and many, many more likes than dislikes. So for me the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’, it was worth it. Many thanks to all who have viewed and publicised my talk.

Reading the comments has been an interesting experience – many are appreciative. Yet some simply show that some of the argument was ignored or not picked up by the watcher – so a watcher asks if religious identity is important to athletic performance in response to a point I make about the failure of the UK press to report on Mo Farrah’s Muslim identity. Though I thought I made it clear that that identity is one Farrah himself says is central to his athletic achievements and hence, yes, it is relevant, it seems that perhaps my optimism that a ten minute talk would deal with attention span issues was misplaced! For some of these mistaken queries other commenters set the record straight, which is kind of them.

Of slightly more interest are some of the questions that get thrown up – I will consider three here. Firstly: what about the term the West? I was glad this was picked up by a viewer as we discuss that in the book that my talk is based upon (Baker, Gabrielatos and McEnery, 2012:131-132). As a self-referential term it does have a role to play in setting up the ‘us’ that is opposed to the ‘them’ of the Muslim world. Another viewer asks whether Muslim world is just a neutral term used to define a culturally homogeneous region. This is a dangerous argument. It takes us to the precipice of the very ‘us and them’ distinction I was discussing. It is dangerous precisely because it is simplistic in nature, as it implies an homogeneous and distinct other (there are non-Muslims who live in the so-called Muslim world, for example – the area referred to is not homogeneous in oh so many ways). It also misses the point – if this was a simply neutral referring expression perhaps the ‘us and them’ distinction would not be so powerful. The problem is it is a very powerful term for generating an ‘us and them’ distinction because it sets Muslims in opposition to non-Muslims in the language and, as noted, it homogenizes Muslims  – they are all the same and the reporting of the views of the Muslim world entrench this monolithic view also (see Baker, Gabrielatos and McEnery, 2012:130). Finally, the same viewer wonders why I did not talk about the change of meaning of words over time. The answer to that one is easy – sadly, as shown in the later part of the talk, the attitudes I was talking about have not changed over time, even though I would have been happy to say that they had if this was true. The viewer also uses the word ‘gay’ as an interesting example of change in meaning over time – well, that would have been another talk to give. A lot of nonsense is spoken about this world – it is usually presented as a word that had a simple, innocent, meaning until another, less innocent meaning came along and spoilt it, a view hilariously lampooned by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in this sketch:

However, this is not true – gay had far from innocent meanings in the past – a quick perusal of Jonathan Green’s excellent Chambers Slang Dictionary shows that. So yes, a discussion of word meaning change over time would have been interesting and debunking a few myths about the word gay would have been fun too – but that was not what my talk was about, so I shall leave the matter there. Maybe for a future TEDx? Who knows.

So – ten minute talks have their pluses and minuses. They are great for getting your message out and, by and large, I am happy with how my talk went. I found the experience of giving a TEDx talk a very positive one and many other people clearly enjoyed it also.  Best of all, it has made people think about and discuss their use of language, and that is something which always pleases me!

Watch my full TEDxLancasterU talk here:

TEDx Lancaster U: The Journey So Far

Tonight, Lancaster University is hosting a series of TEDx talks on the theme of ‘The Journey So Far’. Our own CASS Director Tony McEnery will be joining the dynamic and diverse group of speakers giving give short lectures relating this theme to their work in fields such as digital anthropology, design against crime, sustainable food production, fundraising and social enterprise,  and even magic.

Tony’s TEDx talk is entitled “Where is the ‘Muslim World’?” He will discuss the good, the bad and the ugly ways in which Muslims are talked about in the UK press. To do this he will look at over 200 years of newspaper reporting in the British press relating to Islam and Muslims. While such a study is vast in scope, he will show that only by using the latest computer technology to search through millions and millions of words we can start to understand the roots of modern British media attitudes to Muslims and Islam. As well as seeing what those attitudes are now, and where they came from, the study of the press shows, as though viewed through a distant mirror, the passage of Muslims into British Society, away from being an exotic, Oriental and sometimes dangerous group towards being part of British Society. But where are we on that journey? You’ll have to tune in to find out.

The event sold out almost immediately, but you are able to watch on live webstream by clicking visiting the event page on the TED website between 5pm and 10pm. Tony’s talk is scheduled to take place between 7:30-8:00pm.

John Sinclair lecture: “Primed for Violence? A corpus analysis of jihadist discourse”

It was a great honour to give this year’s Sinclair Lecture at Birmingham University. I have long been an admirer of John’s work – there are many ideas he developed that are well worth critically engaging with. So to be asked to give a talk in his memory and honour was a challenge I happily took on. The topic of the talk I chose carefully – John liked ground breaking work and was a producer of daring and new ideas. So I thought an off-the-shelf piece of work was not right for this talk – it was more in keeping with the event to give a talk on a piece of work in progress. Having made that decision I then knew I should talk on the work I am developing on language and violence.

Language and violence is, in my view, a terribly under-researched topic. It is also an area which, sadly, has on-going relevance to human society. More positively, it is a topic on which linguists can – and to some extent do – provide insights. This talk was given in that spirit. I aim to show, as one would rightly expect of the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science, the insights that a corpus approach may provide to an issue which reaches across the social sciences and beyond. In doing so I had to work with some quite challenging data. I think, however, that the results are at least indicative both of how this area of research may be opened up and how  linguists may contribute to its exploration. I think John would have liked this bold new venture and so I feel very comfortable in dedicating this talk to his memory.


‘How are people persuaded to be violent? How might a small group of people influence members of a larger group of people to behave in ways that they may normally find abhorrent? This talk looks at these questions, which are typically summarised as ‘radicalization’, using the example of jihadist language.I will explore how language may be manipulated in order to legitimate violent acts against certain groups or individuals in jihadist materials. However, I will also be exploring the important claim that there is a direct link between what the jihadists write and what other Muslims write, an assumption held by policy makers, academics and the media.

This talk examines how we look for linguistic evidence of this process, with an emphasis upon incitement to violence. If there is evidence that the manipulation of language in jihadist writing leads to a corresponding adaptation in either the Muslim mainstream media or the writing of ordinary Muslims over time, then we may begin to accept and understand with some linguistic sophistication what is at the moment assumed by many. We may also, however, be able to see how such radicalization is resisted, and hence better understand the process of resistance to radicalization also.

Central to my account of incitement to violence are the linked ideas of collocation and lexical priming. Together these begin to explain, I will argue, both the rhetorical process around incitement to violence and the broader dynamics in discourse that alienate and leave open to persuasion sections of society that may be persuaded to undertake violent acts.

My exploration is based on tens of thousands of words of corpus material, including i.) transcripts of so-called ‘martydom’ videos; ii.) texts by those who exhort jihadists to acts of violence; iii.) muslim news media and iv.) comment data from the Muslim news media. By drawing upon a range of sources like this, I will be better able to characterise the competing forces being brought to bear as different groups try to influence mainstream Muslim discourse.’

Call for Participation: ESRC Summer School in Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences

We are very pleased to issue the first call for participation for our ESRC Summer School in Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences, which will take place at Lancaster University 16th-19th July 2013. This event takes place under the aegis of CASS, a new ESRC research centre bringing a new method in the study of language – the corpus approach – to a range of social sciences. CASS is investigating the use and manipulation of language in society in a host of areas of pressing concern, including climate change, hate crime and education.

Who can attend?

A crucial part of the CASS remit is to provide researchers across the social sciences with the skills needed to apply the tools and techniques of corpus linguistics to the research questions that matter in their own discipline. This event is aimed at junior social scientists – especially PhD students and postdoctoral researchers – in any of the social science disciplines. Anyone with an interest in the analysis of social issues via text and discourse – especially on a large scale – will find this summer school of interest.

Note: This summer school is aimed at beginners who have little or no experience using corpus tools in their work. Those  who have at least some introductory experience of analysis using language corpora, and who wish to expand their knowledge of key issues and techniques in cutting-edge corpus research, will be more interested in the UCREL Summer School in Corpus Linguistics.


The programme consists of a series of intensive two-hour sessions, some involving practical work, others more discussion-oriented. Topics include: Introduction to corpus linguistics; Corpus tools and techniques; Collecting corpus data; Foundational techniques for social science data – keywords and collocation; Understanding statistics for corpus analysis; Discourse analysis for the social sciences; Semantic annotation and key domains; Corpus-based approaches to metaphor in discourse; Pragmatics, politeness and impoliteness in the corpus. Speakers include Paul Baker, Jonathan Culpeper, and Elena Semino.

The CASS Summer School is part of three ‘Lancaster Summer Schools in Interdisciplinary Digital Methods’, see the website for further information. There are additional daily plenary lectures shared with the other two Summer School events, each illustrating cutting-edge digital research methods using corpus data. The confirmed plenary speakers are Tony McEnery, Ian Gregory, and Stephen Pumfrey.

How to apply

The CASS Summer School is free to attend, but registration in advance is compulsory, as places are limited. For more details, see the website.