The Spoken BNC2014 early access projects: Part 1

In January, we announced the recipients of the Spoken BNC2014 Early Access Data Grants. Over the next several months, they will use exclusive access to the first five million words of Spoken BNC2014 data to carry out a total of thirteen research projects.

In this series of blogs, we are excited to share more information about these projects, in the words of their authors.

In Part 1 of our series, read about the work of Deanna Wong, Jonathan Culpeper and Robert Fuchs.

Deanna Wong

Macquarie University, Australia

Investigating British English backchannels in the Spoken BNC2014

Have you ever listened to someone listening? While we might expect that listeners are silent, it turns out that listeners have a lot to say. Mostly, this listener speech happens at the same time as when the speaker is talking, but listeners are not talking to interrupt the speaker. Instead, listeners signal to the speaker that they are paying attention, that they agree with what the speaker has to say, and sometimes, that they are ready to have their turn at talking. The words that listeners use to signal these things can range from a simple mm to whole sentences. To make things even more interesting, how listeners listen varies across different parts of the world.

Sociolinguists use the term ‘backchannels’ to describe listener speech. Early research identified backchannels by careful investigations of individual conversations. That analysis took time, though, and it was not until researchers were able to access language corpora that we started to get a sense of the nature of backchannels in conversation on a larger scale.

However looking for evidence of backchannels in a corpus has its own challenges. If the actual language used by listeners is to be uncovered, we cannot assume that they take a specific form. Otherwise, we might miss something important! The key to unlocking this information is to use corpus annotation. Annotation is simply a way of marking what is happening in the talk. For example, corpus annotation can be used to indicate who is speaking, and if they are speaking at the same time so that their speech overlaps.

In my investigation into the Spoken BNC2014 early access subset, I will be using annotation that marks overlapping speech to help identify potential backchannels in conversations from across the United Kingdom. The size of the corpus, and its accompanying information about its speakers will add to our understanding of how British speakers backchannel. It will also help us to compare their backchannels to those produced by speakers of English in other parts of the world.

Jonathan Culpeper

Lancaster University, UK

Politeness variation in England

The stereotype of British politeness is pervasive, and, moreover, it is usually linked to what people say. Take, as an example, this advice on British stereotypes for study abroad students:

The way that British people speak and the language that we use is also considered quite polite. The language that many people use, including lots of phrases like ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘pardon’ or ‘excuse me’ and ‘would you mind…’ certainly back this up […]


In fact, the first item in the list, please, seems to be elevated by many English parents to the supernatural – the “magic word” for achieving successful requests. Similarly, in the earthly world of academia, a large number of studies have found evidence that present-day English politeness is often characterised by so-called “off-record” or “negative politeness” –  it’s all about being indirect, showing respect for others’ privacy, freedom from disturbance, and so on. In the example, the expressions ‘would you mind’, ‘pardon me’ and ‘excuse me’ all readily fit this function. To these, one might add could you […], seemingly, the most frequent way in which requests are performed in British English.

But is all this true? For starters, there’s a lingering concern that some British people may actually use other items, perhaps functional alternatives, just as or even more frequently. For instance, thank you is one expression, but what about ta or cheers? More substantially, for anybody living in the north of England, the idea of British indirectness does not entirely ring true. Indirectness is somewhat stand-offish and cold; not reflective of the much proclaimed northern warmth and friendliness. Consider this opinion (written by a Scotsman who has lived in various parts of Britain):

There is definitely a North/South divide when it comes to politeness. Having lived on the South coast of England and then Scotland, it is very noticeable that people are more friendly and polite the further North you go in Britain


Politeness here is connected to friendliness. Maybe academia is orienting to a particular and different cultural stereotype of politeness, one based on a British southern perspective. Or maybe the idea of northern friendly politeness is a stereotype itself and has no basis in what people actually do.

This study sets out to examine these issues. I intend it to be a contribution to one of the newest sub-fields of linguistic pragmatics, variational pragmatics, which combines pragmatics and dialectology. One of the greatest impediments to doing such a study has been the lack of large quantities of spoken, especially conversational, data taken from across Britain. The Spoken British National Corpus 2014 early access subset offers a solution.

Robert Fuchs

University of Münster, Germany

Recent change in the sociolinguistics of intensifiers in British English

As social beings and speakers of a language we are extremely good at putting people into boxes – female and male, young and old, old-fashioned and hip. One of the many clues that allows us to make these (sometimes in fact unwarranted) assumptions is sociolinguistic variation. Whether and how women and men differ in how they speak, for example, is a hotly debated topic in- and outside of academia.

This study approaches this topic from two novel angles. The first is that several sociolinguistic factors, age, social class, gender of speaker, gender of interlocutor and others, are considered in interaction with each other. Secondly, the study also looks at change across time, from the 1990s to the 2010s. For example, given the change in attitudes concerning what roles women and men are supposed to fulfil in society, I expect that any gender differences present in the 1990s will have decreased by the 2010s. The variable that the study investigates is the usage of so-called intensifiers (as in *very* good, *so* cool), which are said to occur more frequently in female than male speech.

Check back soon for Part 2!

Jonathan Culpeper talking ‘Sarcasm’ tonight on The One Show

Sarcasm is one of the phenomena that seems to have endless fascination for British people, partly because  they are stereotypically associated with it. When did sarcasm first start?  Is there something about British culture that makes it flourish?  And what is sarcasm anyway? These are some of the questions that Gyles Brandeth  of BBC 1’s The One Show puts to Jonathan Culpeper in an item reflecting on sarcasm in Britain.

Tune in to BBC1 tonight at 19:00 to hear CASS co-investigator Prof. Jonathan Culpeper discussing sarcasm on The One Show.

Rude Britannia – what our politeness says about our nation

Britain is still a nation of polite people and fears that texts, tweets and Facebook are making people ruder is a myth, according to research from Lancaster University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). The British are famous for their reserve, indirect way of saying things and a love of queuing. However, new research shows that what we find polite, and what we find rude is unique to our culture and can be very different to notions of rudeness in other cultures.

The research carried out by Professor Jonathan Culpeper, an expert in linguistic politeness, will be presented at an event as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s annual Festival of Social Science, which runs between 2-9 November 2013.

Read more…

Introducing Challenge Panel Member: Alan Partington

The latest in our series of Challenge Panel introductions is Alan Partington, in his own words:


I work at Bologna University in Italy and live just north of the city in the town of Ferrara, which – I like to tell people – is exactly half way between Venice and Florence. I teach in the School of Political Science. The main topic of my undergraduate courses is the relationship between politicians and the media in English-speaking countries, as witnessed in the language used by each ‘side’.  My postgraduate courses are in the area of International Relations, where we discuss topics such as globalisation, Euroscepticism (and Europhilia), economic development, aid and trade, and the increasingly important social and economic roles of women in the developing world.

I’ve long been keen on using corpus techniques to study the language of political and social-sciences discourses and so I’m very pleased to be a member of the CASS Challenge Panel. Over the past few years, I’ve been involved in a couple of large-scale political-sociolinguistics projects, one into the reporting of the conflict in Iraq (funded by the Italian Ministry for Universities) and one into the perceptions  of European identity (funded by the EU). I’ve also looked at how antisemitism is discussed and evaluated in the UK broadsheet press and at how the Arab Uprisings were reported in the UK and US media. I am currently thinking about ways in which corpora might be used to study issues of social class.

I am also interested in the methodologies employed in using corpora in the social sciences and a team of scholars in Italy (‘SiBol’ from Siena and Bologna, the two universities involved) has been active in experimented techniques for corpus-assisted discourse studies which involves using corpora to investigate non-obvious meaning, that is, meaning which might not be readily available to naked-eye perusal. We have also looked at ways of tracking discourses around social issues over recent time, which we have named modern diachronic corpus-assisted discourse studies (or MD-CADS). The SiBol team has lately been investigating ways in which corpus techniques can be used to study areas often thought to be ‘tough nuts’ for corpus linguistics research, such as metaphor, irony, wordplay, politeness (including strategic laughter-talk), cohesion, investigating similarities between datasets (rather than the more common focus on differences) and searching, measuring and tracking what might be absent from a particular dataset (for example, which governments are sometimes called a ‘regime’ by the White House and which are never labelled as such?).

But a final word of caution. We need to be suspicious of approaches, however well-intentioned, which simply mine corpora to find evidence to support a preconceived argument. One of the added values of using corpora in social-sciences research is that this can help the data to speak for itself, which not only provides a measure of objectivity and replicability but also forces us to refine our hypotheses and frequently throws up suggestions for fresh avenues of research. As Tony McEnery pointed out in his recent TED talk, ‘we don’t throw away inconvenient data because it disagrees with our hypotheses. In fact we’re unusually interested in such data: we want to be challenged by it’. This takes a great deal of intellectual honesty, which has not always been in evidence, but it should be adopted as a slogan throughout the social sciences.

Did you miss our previous introductions? Click through to brush up on the exciting works of Mark Davies and Stefan Th. Gries

The neglected west: first-order politeness in Britain

Teaching and Learning (Im)politeness: An International (Im)politeness Conference“, will be held at SOAS, University of London, 8-10 July. I will be giving a talk with Jim O’Driscoll (Huddersfield) on the topic below:

Almost without exception, it is scholars based in “Western” locations that have introduced the ideas with pretensions to universal application which are commonly regarded as major milestones in the field of politeness studies: face (Goffman); politeness principle (Leech); politeness as redress to face and positive & negative faces (B&L); first versus second order politeness and politic behaviour (Watts 1992ff); impoliteness (Culpeper 1996ff); discursive politeness (Eelen 2001, Watts 2003, Mills 2005ff). Typically, the role of scholars from non-western areas has been to present culture-specific evidence to challenge or tinker with these ideas. Likewise, a perusal of merely the table of contents of edited collections (e.g. Watts et al 1992, Bargiela-Chiappini & Haugh 2009, Bargiela-Chiappini & Kádár 2011) suggests that data from western environments needs no specific labelling as such, while contributions from elsewhere have to indicate geographical specificity in their titles.

This decidedly western discursive deictic centre (O’Driscoll 2009) has a distorting effect. For one thing, there is a tendency to believe that the politeness2 and face2 conceptualisations emanating from western locations are actually accounts of politeness1 and face1 in these western cultures, so that, for example, Goffman’s face (second-order) is American face (first-order) or that B&L’s politeness (second-order) reflects ‘English’ politeness (first-order) (cf. Matsumoto 1988; Ide 1989; Gu 1990; Mao 1994; Nwoye 1992; Wierzbicka 1991 [2003]). For another, it has resulted in a relative paucity of emic studies of core western cultures, leading in turn to an unwisely unexamined acceptance of certain stereotypes of these cultures.

This paper probes English people’s understandings of politeness. More specifically, it investigates their usage of the term polite. Deploying methodologies from corpus linguistics, we report results from the 500 million-word subsection of the Oxford English Corpus. These results fly in the face of the large number of studies which have found evidence that present-day English politeness – by which English English politeness is meant – is often characterised by off-record or negative politeness (e.g. Blum-Kulka 1989; Stewart 2005; Wierzbicka  2006; Ogiermann 2009). We refine these results further by looking at variation across the social categories of the British National Corpus.

Check back after the event for access to slides.