Dear corpus crunchers
On May 5 I posted a question on prefabricated phrases in various
genres of academic English and received a set of very helpful
responses from the following scholars: Chris Tribble, Sylvie LeCock,
Maria Wiktorsson, Alejandro Curado, Eleanor Olds Batchelder, Gunter
Lorenz, Antoinette Renouf and Gordon Cain. As I received bibliographic
help from Jane Willis, Frank Smadja and Tony Berber Sardinha around
the same time, I include them as well. Here I would also like to
mention the help of my supervisor, Katie Wales, who got me this far,
and Peter Howarth, both of Leeds University. I alone am responsible
for any dross in this summary.
I at first thought of suggesting a Special Interest Group for
prefabrication but I think the mix of specialists on the CORPORA
mailing list and their different skills and interests provides a much
more challenging testing ground for any hypothesis or new idea. A good
example of this was the brief exchange which took place recently in
response to a question put by David Sorokin ( June 28) about n-grams.
This debate unfortunately petered out within 24 hours.Tony Berber
Sardinha, on the same day, directed David Sorokin to his own (Tony's)
home page for a list of bigrams from the Brown Corpus. Tony's home
page in Sao Paolo is a happy hunting ground for corpus watchers. His
doctoral thesis is available there. Eric Atwell (June 29) suggested
that longer n-grams would be genre-specific and recommended
dictionaries such as Collins English Dictionary and COBUILD as rich
sources of more 'core' multi-word lexical entries which could be used
to build n-grams. Chris Brew on the same day effectively closed the
debate with a short summary of an article by Slava Katz 1996 published
in the Journal of Natural Language Engineering, which, by the sound of
it, we should all be reading. (Check out posting by Chris Brew, June
29). Tantalizingly brief though it was, I found this flurry of four
or chunking is going ahead at several seats of learning, namely Lund,
Aston in Birmingham and Louvain. I mention these three universities
because I received replies from them- I know there is much work on
prefabs going on elsewhere. The work of Britt and Warren and
Wiktorsson at Lund is a meticulous sifting 'by hand' of small samples
(mostly taken from computer corpora). Warren's (1999) results show the
proportion of prefabs in texts to be 58.6% for her spoken corpus and
52.3% for her written corpus. It should be pointed out that in the
spoken corpus she counted verb contractions (e.g. I'm, don't, isn't,
let's) or reducibles, as she called them, as prefabs. For
consistency, she also considered the full written forms (I am, do
not, is not, let us) as prefabs. Wiktorsson (1998) reports levels of
prefabrication in a written corpus of 39.4% (using samples from a
novel and from newspapers and magazines). Surprisingly, a corpus of
poetry, in a sister study by Skold, was found to contain 21%
prefabricated language. I should add that Wiktorsson as well as
counting grammatical contractions (he's, shouldn't and so on) also
counted proper names (famous ones such as Bill Clinton and not so
famous ones) as prefabrications. This meticulous work at Lund is
laying the ground for further study. The work of Peter Howarth at
Leeds is similarly painstaking and 'manual'. Like Warren and
Wiktorsson he uses the computer to deliver his samples (from the
tagged LOB and other corpora)but relies on his intuitions for the
analysis of the data. In his study of verb- noun collocations in a
corpus of social science texts, Howarth found that the 63 main verbs
he studied in a subcorpus of LOB revealed some degree of
restrictedness in relation to the nouns they collocate with, in 41% of
the occurrences of the verb studied. Howarth's work also provides a
carefully worked out taxonomy for the categorization of word
combinations. The examples given below in the bibliography of work at
Aston University shows the variety of approaches to prefabs by various
M.Sc. and doctoral students from different years. This is hardly
surprising with Jane Willis, Peter Roe and Frank Knowles all
associated with the Language Study Unit at Aston. The work at Louvain
under Sylviane Granger is changing the face of SLA research and
learner corpora are now all the rage (justifiably, I think: I've built
one myself of about a million words of social science MA dissertations
written by ex-USSR students). Sylvie De Cock very kindly filled me in
on developments at Louvain: she herself is studying prefabrication or
recurrent word combinations in the speech of advanced learners. She
also read a paper focused on prefabs in argumentative essays at the
ICAME conference in Freiburg in May this year. Prefabs or chunking,
then , have relevance for many fields within linguistics. LI
acquisition, SLA, psycholinguistics (spoken language performance
within the usual time constraints of conversation, interview,
telephoning etc. along the spoken-written formal-informal continuum
(see Chris Tribble's Genre article at his homepage where he
discusses the work of Douglas Biber on genre and Michael Hoey's
recent work on semantic prosody).
Tribble shows how certain words can assume a local semantic prosody
very different from their usual dictionary definition. He mentions the
words such as 'international' and 'professional' which have pronounced
positive semantic prosody locally in his corpus of international
consultancy proposals. Could this taking on of a special meaning in a
genre be the first step in the process whereby one of the lexical
items in an expression, which was originally composed according to the
free choice principle, gets a specialized or more figurative meaning
(as in Howarth's restricted collocations) or even becomes
delexicalized (as in baked beans). I often enjoyed thinking of words
and the company they keep in terms of an analogy from chemistry:
morphemes as subatomic particles, words as atoms, molecules as
phrasemes. Compounds and reaction equations becoming phrases and
sentences. The study of phraseology would look at the attractions,
repulsions and indifference between words.
But it appears that even in the case of writing, when there is
plenty of time available for composing, there's still a surprising
amount of prefabrication (Wiktorsson, Warren, Howarth).Wanting to
sound natural and to satisfy readers' expectations might play a part
in this as also might the apposite use of set phrases, which follow
the 'house rules' of a genre, functioning as a membership badge. A
lot of the freedom in writing academic English perhaps lies in the
choice of fixed expressions for assembly rather than in the choice of
Prefabrication might explain why languages are learnable (Deacon
1998) to young children in the time available without having
recourse to nativist theories. Prefabrication might be what makes
languages learnable and transmittable to new generations. Those nonce
forms that survive, that get transferred into the common stock, might
do so because they are, literally, more memorable than the other
competing nonce forms which pass into oblivion. In the terminology of
modern popular science the phrase which catches on is a successful
meme (Blackmore 1999:40-4). The rhyme, alliteration and assonance
found in many proverbs comes to mind (Glaeser 1988:275) Generally
speaking, the idiom principle is the default one. How I would like to
go forward would be to see if Peter Howarth's findings for a general
social science corpus hold up for various subject areas within the
social sciences. I would like to see to what extent the Lund study of
prefabs could be computerized using 'probes' as Tim Johns describes
them on his EAP homepage http://sun1.bham.ac.uk/johnstf/timeap3.htm
(e.g. Johns shows how 'such as' captures many examples of the use of
superordinates: I have found some small words like 'as' , 'so', 'of' (
cf. Sinclair 1991pp 80ff)as useful probes for building up prefab
lists, bigrams, then trigrams and so on). This would be probabilistic
but increasingly less so. Also findings from the micro-studies could
be fed into the macro studies. I thank all who helped me so readily
and others, who in their discussions on CORPORA provide so many
different ways of seeing things. I apologize if I have misrepresented
anyone's views: this was my reading of the people mentioned.
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