January 20, 2005

The Economist on internet linguistics

Today the Economist has a story entitled "Corpus colossal", which starts like this:

LINGUISTS must often correct lay people's misconceptions of what they do. Their job is not to be experts in “correct” grammar, ready at any moment to smack your wrist for a split infinitive. What they seek are the underlying rules of how language works in the minds and mouths of its users. In the common shorthand, linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive. What actually sounds right and wrong to people, what they actually write and say, is the linguist's raw material.

But that raw material is surprisingly elusive. Getting people to speak naturally in a controlled study is hard. Eavesdropping is difficult, time-consuming and invasive of privacy. For these reasons, linguists often rely on a “corpus” of language, a body of recorded speech and writing, nowadays usually computerised. But traditional corpora have their disadvantages too. The British National Corpus contains 100m words, of which 10m are speech and 90m writing. But it represents only British English, and 100m words is not so many when linguists search for rare usages. Other corpora, such as the North American News Text Corpus, are bigger, but contain only formal writing and speech.

Linguists, however, are slowly coming to discover the joys of a free and searchable corpus of maybe 10 trillion words that is available to anyone with an internet connection: the world wide web. The trend, predictably enough, is prevalent on the internet itself. For example, a group of linguists write informally on a weblog called Language Log ...

Read the whole thing! It's a welcome example of an article about linguistics in the popular press that is clear, accurate and interesting. I don't think that my evaluation is influenced by the fact that it cites Language Log, and quotes Philip Resnik and me. Like most scientists and scholars, I'm usually more critical than I should be of articles about topics I know something about, and most critical of all when an article mentions or quotes me.

I particularly like the final point:

The easy availability of the web also serves another purpose: to democratise the way linguists work. Allowing anyone to conduct his own impromptu linguistic research, some linguists hope, will do more to popularise their notion of studying the intricacy and charm of language as it really exists, not as killjoy prescriptivists think it should be.

If I were a pedant, not to say a killjoy prescriptivist, I might suggest the alternative "...allowing anyone to conduct their own linguistic research ... will ... popularize the notion of studying the intricacy and charm of language as it really exists", for reasons that Geoff Pullum explained in a Language Log post from last August. But I'm not, so I won't.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 20, 2005 02:37 PM