Introducing Challenge Panel Member: John Flowerdew

Our latest Challenge Panel introduction comes from Professor John Flowerdew via the City University of Hong Kong. Read his brief autobiography below.

John_FlowerdewThe person who introduced me to corpus linguistics was the sadly departed John Sinclair of Birmingham University and later the Tuscan Word Centre, a man who can be considered a doyen of corpus linguistics. John visited the Middle-Eastern university where I was working, Sultan Qaboos University, Sultanate of Oman, in the mid-1980s, and introduced me and my colleagues to corpus linguistics. Following this visit, a very talented technician there, David Poulton, designed a concordancer for our use (concordancers were not generally available at the time) and I started to do concordancing work with the academic discourse that students at Sultan Qaboos University were having to grapple with. We used the corpus to develop English for Academic Purposes teaching materials, which were quite successful. I reported on that project in one of my first papers, Concordancing as a tool in course design (Flowerdew, 1993). At the same time, I became very interested in definitions and published a series of papers on that topic, including one in Applied Linguistics, entitled Definitions in science lectures (Flowerdew, 1992).

At the beginning of the 1990s I moved to City University of Hong Kong and continued to work in academic discourse, but also became interested in the possibilities of corpus-based work in critical discourse analysis. Chris Patten became the last British Governor of Hong Kong at this time and he had a very powerful rhetorical style which I hope I was able to capture through the use of corpus tools based on a corpus of his speeches and other public pronouncements that I collected (in addition to interviews with him and his advisers and media data). I continued with this work after the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain to China, looking at the discourse surrounding the first Hong Kong Chief Executive (roughly equivalent to Governor). Most of this work is collected in my book Critical discourse Analysis in historiography (Flowerdew, 2013).

During all of my time working in academic discourse I have been interested in a particular type of abstract nouns, which I call signalling nouns, and which have very important discourse properties, words like problem, situation, result, importance, case, thing, etc.. I have spent several years working with a corpus of lectures, textbook chapters and research articles across disciplines on these nouns and my book on this topic, with Richard W. Forest, will be Signalling nouns in English: a corpus-based discourse approach (Flowerdew and Forest, in press).

As one of my contributions to CASS I am organising a one-day corpus workshop at my university in Hong Kong with colleagues from Lancaster to precede the Second Asia Pacific Corpus Linguistics Conference (APCLC 2014). The response has been great and we are likely to have to close the registration, which has to be capped at 80.

Flowerdew, J. (1992). Definitions in science lectures. Applied Linguistics, 13(2), 202-221.

Flowerdew, J. (1993). Concordancing as a tool in course design. System, 21(2), 231-244. Reprinted in Ghadessy, M., Henry, A. & Roseberry, R.L.(2001). Small corpus studies and ELT: Theory and practice. (pp. 71-92). Amsterdam, Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Flowerdew, J. (2012). Critical discourse analysis in historiography: The Case of Hong Kong’s evolving political identity. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan.

Flowerdew, J. and Forest, R. W. (in press). Signalling nouns in discourse: a corpus-based discourse approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Did you miss our previous introductions? Click through to the Challenge Panel page to see profiles, and check back soon for updates.

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.’