Stylistics and grief

[content note: death, especially of loved ones. Descriptions of guts, blood and assorted viscera)

Last term I was teaching a literary linguistics module. Literary linguistics, or Stylistics, basically uses concepts and frameworks drawn from linguistics – so stuff about everything from phonology (sounds) to grammar to lexicology to pragmatics – to make sense of (usually, but not always) literary texts. I went to the Dark Side of linguistics pretty early in my undergraduate career because I adored nerding out over language being used to do stuff and create relationships and manipulate people and summon ideas into being. However, I’ve been an avid reader since I was a small child – I once fell down an entire flight of stairs in an ill-fated attempt to combine reading and walking, and was more cross at losing my place than worried about the potential for injury – and it’s rare that I don’t have at least one book on the go. Stylistics is appealing because it’s very text and evidence based, and ultimately I was on the Dark Side of empiricism before I even got to university.

Teaching Stylistics was also a superb opportunity to immerse myself in something new. Both my PhD supervisor and partner work with corpus approaches to literary texts so I’ve come across a lot of it by osmosis even if I don’t research it myself. It was also a joy to learn alongside my very engaged and interested students. One session introduced students to cloze procedure texts which are basically a way of testing people’s mental associations of words – their internal sense of what words go with which. We might consider these their lexical primings or their internal sense of collocations, and for that reason I like contrasting this approach with corpus linguistics.

One of the poems we used was an extract of W H Auden’s ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ with the following gaps:

He ________ in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the ________ almost deserted.
And snow _________ the public statues;
The _______ sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What _______ we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The _______ ran on through evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the ________quays;
By mourning tongues
The _______ of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and ________;
The provinces of his mind revolted,
The ______ of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the _______,
The current of his feeling failed; he _______ his admirers.

Now he is _______ among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of _______
And be punished under a foreign code of ________.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the _____ of the living

This was a multiple choice cloze procedure text so they had four word options for each slot, they spent some time choosing which word they thought fit best into the gaps, then I showed them the whole poem and we discussed it.

Their choices included things like “An afternoon of nurses and doctors“, “a foreign code of conduct” and “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. They were quite surprised when I showed them the actual poem and the weird, unexpected things it does with words.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) suggests that nurses and should occur with words like doctors, physicians, midwives, patients, orderlies, pharmacists and therapists – people working in medicine or who we may expect to see in a hospital or GP surgery. There are also a few occurrences of other professions, such as teachers and engineers. My students clearly had an internal sense of this collocation and their choice reflected their expectations. However, the poem doesn’t give us what we expect. “An afternoon of nurses and rumours” juxtaposes the concrete noun “nurses” with the abstract noun “rumours”. Reading it is a bit of a jolt, a bit of wrongness.

Again, the “guts of the living” doesn’t give us what we’d expect. The poem is contemplating the afterlife of the poet and where his words live on. We would probably expect this gap to say something about existence beyond the body; perhaps, as my students predicted, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. We expect the missing word to reflect the language of something metaphysical and elevated. Instead, the poem gives us this very earthy noun guts, derived from the Anglo-Saxon guttas.

Gut can be used both metaphorically and literally. Its metaphorical uses describe emotions, particularly bravery and intuition: “they had the guts to put up a sign”, “We just followed our guts” or “he had the nerve and guts and discipline”. When it’s used literally, it’s used to describe a really immediate physicality of intestines and viscera: “The fly and the smell of guts and urine made me want to puke”, “Its guts had been pulled out and strewn across the dirt, no longer wet and glistening”, “these bacteria thrive (or don’t) in our guts” (again, all examples are taken from the Corpus of Contemporary American English). The rest of the poem doesn’t really talk about the actual process of death but instead slightly dodges it; it’s in this line that we are confronted with bodies and physicality and vulnerability.

I think there’s a tension in this poem between our expectations of what to think and feel and say in the event of death, and the sense of bewilderment and confusion and being wrong-footed. We know what we ought to be able to expect: nurses and doctors, codes of conduct, souls. We may try to find solace in that ritual. And yet we feel loss and lost: the rules and knowledge we could predict are no longer there. Someone dear to us is no longer there. The words we expect to come do not come, and something strange and unfamiliar and disconcerting are in their place.

haunting texts

Winchester cathedral graffiti from 1632

Graffiti from 1632 carved into a pillar of Winchester cathedral

Last semester I was teaching a History of English module. With little in the way of previous teaching materials, I had considerable scope to develop my own – and woah, did I have fun with that.

I grew up in a medieval city, its Anglo-Saxon quarters still somewhat in evidence and traces of its inhabitants and their trades and their prejudices echoed still in the street names. The city itself is a palimpsest, post-war layered on Victorian layered on Georgian layered on Tudor layered on medieval layered on Anglo-Saxon and, crouching in alcoves, the city’s old Roman walls. It’s impossible to live there and not let that somehow soak into your bones, just a quiet awareness that your life is one breath against the city’s dreaming stones.

And yet, all of this history is just part of your life. When you grow up playing on castle ruins (destroyed in the English Civil War and never rebuilt) and running around a medieval great hall and there are Roman coins on a table in your primary school because they were dug up in someone’s dad’s field, and you spend your teenage years perched on tombs and ruining tourists’ photos by sprawling messily on the market cross, it’s impossible to be too reverent about the history that surrounds you. As a child, I was enchanted by illuminated manuscripts – and also by the graffiti carved into the cathedral stones. History is real people, real lives – not just stuff to distantly admire.

I hope that this came across in my teaching as I offered them historical context along with linguistics, information about Anglo-Saxon farming methods taught alongside the case system. I wanted them to understand where these texts came from – the fact that manuscripts were heavily used, the physicality of operating a heavy printing press.

Freshly printed Caxton

Freshly printed Caxton

Happily, the university has a massive school of art and one of their specialities is various forms of printing, so off we went to operate a letterpress. Our guide to the process, Naomi Midgley, showed us around the typecase, how to set up a composing stick and had prepared a forme of a text for us to print. Because I couldn’t resist trolling my students a little bit, I chose a extract of Caxton. Then we got to place the forme in the press, ink it, carefully place a sheet of paper over it, place the tympan and frisket over it, roll the coffin into place, pull the bar towards us to lower the platen then push it to raise it, then roll the coffin back out, lift the tympan and frisket and finally lift the sheet of paper to view the new print. It was an important insight into the physical nature of producing a print and what can go wrong as our inexpert hands applied too much ink, not enough ink, applied too much pressre from the platen, not enough pressure, nudged the paper as we lifted it off and smudged the wet ink. It was one thing to read about the process of producing a printed text; quite another to actually do the labour myself. If I could, I would love to apprentice myself to a printer, to learn how to reach into the the typecase without having to look, to assemble formes, to allow the process of operating a press mark my body with ink and callouses and changed musculature.

As a corpus linguist, one of the things I struggle with is the way that materiality is both present and absent in the texts I use. I use large collections of machine-readable texts, stored on my computer or a server and manipulated using a computer program. I don’t go into archives, rarely physically come into contact with my texts. However, they are scanned using Optical Character Recognition and through this, the early twentieth century newspaper texts I use with constantly remind me of their physicality.

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

In these texts, flecks of dirt or ink, smudges, imperfections in the paper and so on are interpreted as salient by the OCR program: spots of dirt or ink become full stops or commas or dashes or part of a colon or semi-colon, flecks of ink mean that o acquires a tail and becomes a p or q or b or d, smudges turn a c into an o or an e and so on. In corpus linguistics the text is both isolated from the way it was physically produced, yet the method of production haunts the text, is a ghost (or perhaps a poltergeist) in my analysis. I often had to return to images of the newspaper text to interpret my concordance lines or manually correct texts for detailed analysis.

I don’t have an easy answer or, indeed, a conclusion. Perhaps all I can do is suggest what I had to do so many times when the smudges and blobs became too much: return to the text with human senses.

Getting the most out of CorpusMOOC

The second run of Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation started a fortnight ago. It’s an eight week massive open online course. The course description says it offers “a practical introduction to the methodology of corpus linguistics for researchers in social sciences and humanities”, but in reality, people on the course come from a huge range of backgrounds – undergraduate students, retired people, teachers, researchers, translators and those who simply are interested in language and want to learn more about it.

I was a course mentor last time, so put together some tips to help you get the most out of the course.

Work at your own pace
The course is developed so there’s something for everyone. There are core readings and exercises each week suitable for beginners; there are also supplementary materials for those who already have some experience with corpus linguistics. I particularly like the “in conversation” videos with leading figures in corpus linguistics – it can be really helpful to see how people actually use corpus linguistics in their research, especially in the first weeks of the course. The course is carefully designed to build on previous weeks and to allow you to progress at your own rate. Lecture videos and transcripts are both downloadable so can be listened to or read at any time – there seems to be an unofficial competition to see who can listen to the lectures in the most unusual place!

There’s a lot of material and it can be daunting, but don’t be put off. You may want to do the core exercises for the first month or so, then return to the optional material from earlier weeks as you gain confidence and experience.

While the course lasts for eight weeks, the course mentors will be around for an additional two weeks to advise and answer questions so there’s no need to worry if you do get a bit behind.

Refer back to previous material
If there’s a section you find particularly helpful, download the video, slides or transcript (or all three!) so you can refer back to it later. It’s always annoying to go “oooh, I found a nice explanation for that” and then never find it again. Which leads to…

Take notes
It’s useful to keep your own notes for the course, whether they are handwritten in a notebook, in a document on your computer or online in a blog. There are pro and cons to each – I personally like handwriting notes as I find it sticks better, but typing notes is often more convenient and it’s (usually!) harder to lose your notes. As budding corpus linguists, keeping your notes in machine readable format also means you are creating something that can be analysed with corpus tools later on.

The Course Reader collects blog posts and tweets from registered users. You can make an account if you want to be able to post your own material to the Course Reader, or just visit the site to see what others have written. The #CorpusMOOC twitter hashtag is often a source of lively debate.

Ask for help
There are a dedicated team of mentors available to answer your questions. We’re all either studying for, or have recently finished, postgraduate degrees in linguistics and use corpus linguistics in our research. We want to make sure that you have a good experience and take something away from the course, so do ask us questions! We’ll be reading and commenting on posts, focusing on that week’s but also looking at previous and upcoming weeks when we have the chance.

Your fellow learners are also a valuable resource and can help you. There are students from a wide range of backgrounds, some of which prove very useful on the MOOC! If you have a problem, it’s worth scrolling down the comment section to see if anyone has had a similar issue and resolved it or got a response. In addition, the course contributors are often present in the weeks that their research is discussed to answer questions and offer insights into their work.

The FutureLearn interface
Each topic has a discussion section where you can leave comments – these work like a classroom and are the spaces the course mentors and contributors monitor. They’re often very active and it can be hard to keep track of current comments and replies to your comments. There’s a handy way to do this…

corpusMOOC-screenshot1
First, find the yellow and pink box at the top-left of your screen – I’ve circled it in the screenshot above.

corpusMOOC-screenshot2
This opens a grey sidebar with options to view Activity (the most recent posts), Replies (replies to your posts), To do (the main screen) and a way to check your progress. You need to have clicked “Mark as complete” on the sections you’ve completed otherwise it won’t know what you’ve done.

Finally, have fun! It’s a free course taught by some great academics, it showcases cutting edge research and offers a solid foundation (and more) in corpus linguistics. Whether this course is something that will help your future research or is something you’re doing for fun and to keep your mind sharp, I hope you get something out of it. Ultimately we all signed up because we’re interested in language, we’re curious and we want to learn new things – if this MOOC can fuel that, I think that’s a great outcome.

To “wage a war against all women”: Elliot Rodger, girls, women and corpus linguistics

Content warning: explicit discussion of misogyny, violence against women and racism.

This is a working paper currently being developed for publication – comments and feedback are very welcome!

Wordcloud of Elliot Rodger's manifesto

Wordcloud of Elliot Rodger’s manifesto

Like many people, I was shocked at the Isla Vista shootings. In an effort to understand what happened, I read – a lot. There is a collection of links about Elliot Rodger, rape culture and misogyny at the end of this post.

I then downloaded Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and approached it with corpus linguistic techniques. I first calculated keywords, then go on to examine girl, girls and wom?n in more detail.

This table shows the top 25 keywords when compared with the British National Corpus (BNC). A keyword occurs more frequently than we’d expect; in corpus linguistics, we work this out by comparing how often it occurs in a reference corpus (in this case, the BNC) with how often it occurs in the corpus we’re interested in. Words that are more key are more frequent in the target corpus than we’d expect from looking at the reference corpus.

N Word Frequency Keyness
1 I 5,926 13,752.69
2 my 2,501 9,101.61
3 me 1,544 4,546.97
4 didn’t 303 4,137.62
5 was 2,668 2,141.77
6 father’s 144 1,966.18
7 mother’s 105 1,433.64
8 girls 292 1,406.19
9 life 523 1,349.66
10 soumaya 97 1,324.40
11 couldn’t 96 1,310.74
12 I’ve 84 1,146.89
13 wasn’t 83 1,133.24
14 mother 292 935.53
15 would 841 862.82
16 isla 71 820.35
17 santa 115 794.72
18 house 359 754.95
19 father 236 702.35
20 topanga 52 700.05
21 vista 71 685.43
22 myself 192 672.68
23 barbara 105 648.11
24 friends 196 624.09
25 retribution 72 619.44

I’ve used the BNC because it’s a large general corpus that contains both speech and writing and which is balanced across different text types and genres. If I used a different reference corpus it would show me different things which may or may not be useful. Comparing Rodger’s manifesto with other manifestos written by ideologically-motivated murderers might be interesting, as would comparing the manifesto to other texts written by misogynists. However, the BNC does a decent job of highlighting both the individual characteristics of Rodger’s manifesto and a more general discourse of misogyny.

We have placenames like isla, vista, santa, topanga and barbara; words indicating family members and social relationships like mother’s, father’s, mother, father, Soumaya and friends; modal verbs like didn’t, was, couldn’t, wasn’t and would; and lots of first person pronouns like I, my, me, I’ve and myself. Finally, we have retribution, the name Elliot Rodger gave to the day of his attack. When we think about what kind of writing this is – a manifesto in which Rodger outlined his personal history, explained the worldview that led him to such an act of violence, and detailed his plans – this is unsurprising.

Girls shows up as the 8th most key term, while girl is only the 48th most key. I’m going to look at both, starting with girl. A girl can be pretty (14 occurrences), beautiful (11 occurrences), white (9 occurrences) or blonde (9 occurrences) but the bigram no girl appears 12 times and the trigram not one girl appears three times. Notably, a girl is something that happens or belongs to other people:

N	Concordance
1	ngle party because anyone would admit a beautiful girl into it, to make passionate love to her in my
2	gine how heavenly it would be to have a beautiful girl by my side. It is such a shameful tragedy. I 
3	and I walk in all alone. A man having a beautiful girl by his side shows the world that he is worth 
4	home. Why does he deserve the love of a beautiful girl, and not me? Why do girls hate me so? Questio
5	r to me if he walks into a store with a beautiful girl on his arm and I walk in all alone. A man hav
6	 the experience of holding hands with a beautiful girl and walking on a moonlit beach, I could never
7	lking back to my room in triumph with a beautiful girl on my arm, but instead I stumbled back to my 
8	watch another boy experience it, with a beautiful girl who should be mine, was a living hell. I cons
9	around in all of that excitement with a beautiful girl on my arm, to attend every single party becau
10	worth something, because obviously that beautiful girl sees some sort of worth in him. If a man is a
11	 look. I soon found out the name of the beautiful girl in my math class. Her name was Brittany Story

With the exception of line 11, the beautiful girl exists as a symbol of status and is usually found on her male partner’s arm or by his side. This is reflected in the cluster with a beautiful girl which makes up 5 of the 11 occurrences of beautiful girl. There doesn’t appear to be evidence of her agency, let alone her personality or individuality. Instead, she is rather like a bespoke suit or pair of expensive cufflinks. When Rodgers asked “[w]hy does he deserve the love of a beautiful girl, and not me?” it is without asking how he would love someone back.

We also find that a girl occurs 37 times and the girl occurs 11 times. Interestingly, the girl predominantly appears because Rodger noted that she is with someone else. The next set of concordance lines are longer so you can see that more clearly.

N	Concordance
1	    the man looked to be in his late 20's or early 30's, and the girl he was walking with looked like a supermodel. I assumed he w
2	 aside, trying to act cocky and arrogant to both the boy and the girl. My drunken state got the better of me, and I almost fell ov
3	rse towered over her. They were both wearing beach gear, and the girl was in her bikini, showing off to everyone her sensual, erec
4	cular young couple that stood out from the rest only because the girl looked absolutely perfect. She was tall, blonde, and sexy. S
5	I never admitted it to anyone. To be teased and ridiculed by the girl I had a crush on wounded me deeply. The world that I grew up
6	ed like an obnoxious punk; he was tall and wore baggy pants. The girl was a pretty blonde! They looked like they were in the throe
7	en more angry is that Spencer gave me a smug look when I saw the girl, even though she was ugly. He had the nerve to feel like he 
8       rginity when he was only thirteen! In addition, he said that the girl he lost his virginity to was a blonde white girl! I was so e
9	  end place his hand on the girl's ass, and when he did this the girl looked at him and smiled with delight. That guy was in heave
10	so shocked and outraged that I waited outside his room until the girl left, so I could get a glimpse of how she looked. To my reli
11	d of girl who was always meant to be my girlfriend. This was the girl that I was meant to go through college in Santa Barbara with

Rodger focused on appearances, especially perceived disparities in attractiveness between women and the men they were with. We also see evidence of adjectives like blonde and white. While it is important to read Rodger’s actions in context of his misogyny, it is also important to acknowledge the role of race. The girls that Rodger focused on are tall, pretty, blonde and white; brown only appears in the context of martial arts (brown belt, 2 occurrences) and black in the context of skin colour (7 occurrences, all describing boys/men), a black carpet (5 occurrences), clothing (2 occurrences) and Rodger’s own black hair (3 occurrences). Dark is largely used metaphorically, and the only woman described as having dark hair is his father’s girlfriend (“I saw a woman with dark hair and fair skin standing in the kitchen, and she introduced herself as Soumaya”). Brunette only appears once and is used to describe his sister’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend (“My sister even showed me a picture of one of his ex-girlfriends, a pretty brunette white girl”). Brunettes doesn’t appear at all. His stepmother, Soumaya, and his sister’s boyfriend are both people he resented, saw as an intrusion into his life, and who highlighted his lack of sexual experience compared to other members of his family.

It is also very clear from the data which women Rodger found attractive, that he conflated race and attractiveness, that the women he was most attracted to are also unambiguously white, and that he was deeply angered by ugly/black men having sex with beautiful/white women:

“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself”

“If this is actually true, if this ugly black filth was able to have sex with a blonde white girl at the age of thirteen while I’ve had to suffer virginity all my life, then this just proves how ridiculous the female gender is. They would give themselves to this filthy scum, but they reject ME? The injustice!”

Girls shows similar patterns: beautiful girls (23 occurrences), because girls (6 occurrences), blonde girls (11 occurrences), from girls (6 occurrences), hot girls (8 occurrences), no girls (4 occurrences), of girls (19 occurrences), pretty girls (15 occurrences), the girls (36 occurrences) and young girls (4 occurrences). Clusters show that more than one adjective can be used: beautiful blonde girls appears six times. Again, it is very very clear which women Rodger found attractive, and it’s also clear that he placed enormous emphasis on physical attractiveness. One gets the sense that Rodger constantly judged and assessed women based on their appearance – he wanted attention from the “hot”, status-conferring girls, and there is little evidence in these sets of collocates of girls who do not conform to his ideas of beauty.

So let’s have a closer look at the girls. We find the following make up 15 occurrences of the 36: all the girls (3 occurrences), all of the girls (6 occurrences), most of the girls (1 occurrence), none of the girls (1 occurrence), some of the girls (1 occurrence), one of the girls (2 occurrences) and two of the girls (1 occurrence). As the following quotes show, these occurrences continue to demonstrate Rodger’s belief that girls are a mark of a man’s status, power and prestige.

“They then had the audacity to tell me that they lost their virginity long ago, bragging about all the girls they had slept with”

“He will become a popular kid who gets all the girls. Girls will love him. He will become one of my enemies”

“All of those popular boys must be punished for enjoying heavenly lives and having sex with all the girls while I had to suffer in lonely virginity”

As the following concordance lines demonstrate, Rodger discussed girls as a monolithic entity. They all dress alike, his friends pursue all of them, they all flock to the same boys – and, crucially, they all view him with disdain. This is highlighted in the case of none of the girls: Rodger complained that “[t]hey all started socializing right next to me, and none of the girls paid any attention to me”. Again, there is a strange lack of personality or individuality ascribed to these women.

1	in the faces of all the people who looked down on me, and all of the girls who thought of me as unworthy. I mused that once I beco
2	 and her sexy bare stomach showed as her shirt hung down. All of the girls were scantily clad. Rage boiled inside me as I watched 
3	e alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who've looked down on me in the past. I quickly admir
4	aller than me. I had to suffer watching Julian sweet-talk all of the girls. He acted so confidently, and the way the pretty girl l
5	s confident and sure of myself as possible, thinking that all of the girls I passed were attracted to my appearance. They should b
6	re obnoxious jerks, and yet somehow it was these boys who all of the girls flocked to. This showed me that the world was a brutal

Something different happens when Rodger described one, two or some of the girls. In these cases, Rodger noted his sexual attraction to them, the things they do that sexually provoke him (importantly, this can be as innocuous as doing a handstand while messing around with your mates – if you are a “beautiful blonde girl”, then simply existing is a sexually provocative act for Rodger) and their interactions with other men.

N	Concordance
1	owed them for a few minutes. They just laughed at me, and one of the girls kissed the boy on the lips. I'm assuming she was his 
2	ooked like they were having so much fun playing together. One of the girls did a handstand in the grass, and her sexy bare stomach
3	 so much loneliness and humiliation. I was introduced to some of the girls he had sex with in the past, and they were all pretty.
4	lock of pretty girls with them. One of them sat down with two of the girls, putting his leg up on another chair with a cocky smirk

Reading the concordance lines, there is a strikingly lack of attempts by Rodger to engage with them. I found just one: “One time, as I was walking across the huge bridge that connected the two campuses, I passed by a girl I thought was pretty and said “Hi” as we neared each other. She kept on walking and didn’t even have the grace to respond to me. How dare she! That foul bitch”. Instead, girls are remote, distant – a monolithic entity that constantly rejected and humiliated Rodger yet to which he remained sexually attracted to. To Rodger, the actions of one reflect on them all; the rejection from some girls is a rejection from all girls.

If girl and girls are constantly described in terms of their sexual attractiveness and callousness, with Rodger caught between rage, self-pity and arousal, then wom?n is where his hatred of women is really displayed. Here, the ? in wom?n is a single character wildcard that means that results for both woman and women are included. There are 86 occurrences of wom?n in all.

Unlike girl and girls, there are only a few references to appearance. There are 4 occurrences of beautiful wom?n, 1 occurrence of beautiful model wom?n and 1 occurrence of gorgeous wom?n…and that’s it. There are a couple of references to nationality: German wom?n (2 occurrences) and French wom?n (1 occurrence), and one to race: African American woman.

Interestingly, there are two occurrences of love women, but as the quotes show, this love comes with conditions:

“All I had ever wanted was to love women, but their behavior has only earned my hatred. I want to have sex with them, and make them feel good, but they would be disgusted at the prospect. They have no sexual attraction towards me. It is such an injustice, and I vehemently questioned why things had to be this way. Why do women behave like vicious, stupid, cruel animals who take delight in my suffering and starvation? Why do they have a perverted sexual attraction for the most brutish of men instead of gentlemen of intelligence?”

“All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy”

While Rodger claimed to want to “love women”, this is quickly turned into further justification for his sense of victimisation and his rage. It’s difficult to imagine being able to love someone you can describe as “vicious, stupid, cruel animals”. As seen in girl and girls, Rodger focused on the men he perceived all women as being attracted to – “the most brutish of men” – and clearly positioned himself as superior, again reflecting the hierarchies he constructed and his belief that those further up the hierarchy deserved sex.

Most of the collocates of wom?n are fairly low frequency with the exception of all women and of women. Low frequency collocates include strike against women (1 occurrence), war against women (2 occurrences), degenerate women (1 occurrence), naked women (1 occurrence) and punishing women (1 occurrence). A clear semantic preference for physical violence emerges with mention ofwar against, strike against and punishing, with a second semantic preference for sexual judgement. Women are described as wicked and degenerate and naked occurs in the context of a porn video by which Rodger is simultaneously aroused and repulsed (“human beings doing such weird and unspeakable things with each other revolted me”).

Concordance lines for all women are below.

N	Concordance
1	ly abolish sex, women themselves would have to be abolished. All women must be quarantined like the plague they are, so that they 
2	 the popular young people who never accepted me, and against all women for rejecting me and starving me of love and sex. At this p
3	I will arm myself with deadly weapons and wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to. And I will slaughter the
4	  rve. If I can't have it, I will destroy it. I will destroy all women because I can never have them. I will make them all suffer 
5	something to fantasize about as I burned with hatred towards all women for rejecting me throughout the years. This whole viewpoint
6	r boyfriend only increased my already boiling hatred towards all women. I could not leave my apartment without seeing at least a f
7	 who deprived me of love and sex. My hatred and rage towards all women festered inside me like a plague. Their very existence is t

As these concordance lines show, women are again conflated into a single entity, one that is responsible for provoking Rodger into such violent acts. He railed against “all women for rejecting me and starving me of love and sex” and threatened to “destroy all women because I can never have them” and “wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to”. Of the seven concordance lines above, three reinstate his “hatred” or “hatred and rage” directed at all women.

However, Rodger firmly believed that women had brought it on themselves and were responsible for their own destruction. There are 11 occurrences of of women

1	ous men. I have observed this all my life. The most beautiful of women choose to mate with the most brutal of men, instead of magn
2	rience it all alone, while other men get to enjoy the company of women. I had nothing left to live for but revenge. Women must be 
3	y teenage years were completely denied to me by the cruelness of women. The only way I could make up for it was if I could have an
4	 I was ready and capable of fighting back against the cruelty of women. Back when I was a weak and timid boy at Taft High School, 
5	ows just how bleak and cruel the world is due of the evilness of women. I tried to show it to my parents, to give them some sort d
6	 the best. If a man grows up without knowing of the existence of women, there will be no desire for sex. Sexuality will completely
7	  ng with all of the injustices I've had to face at the hands of women and society. I came up with a name for this after I saw all
8	r, condemned to suffer rejection and humiliation at the hands of women because they don't fancy me, because their sexual attract
9	  he rejection and mistreatment I've experienced at the hands of women, I knew that becoming wealthy was the only way I could beco
10	what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. 
11	  irls hate me so much?" in which I ask the entire population of women the question I've wanted to ask them for so many years. W

Women are positioned as cruel and evil, but also powerful; Rodger railed against the injustices (1 occurrence), rejection (2 occurrences), humiliation (1 occurrence) and mistreatment (1 occurrence) he felt he experienced at the hands of women.

So what were girls and women to Elliot Rodger? The evidence from his manifesto seems to indicate that Rodger was deeply conflicted about them. They were simultaneously: beautiful, hot bestowers of status on their male companions and the yardstick by which a man could measure his worth; fickle, callous creatures who snubbed him; cruel, evil and deliberately withholding the love and sex which Rodger felt was his right; wholly vicious and deserving of hatred and destruction. In Rodger’s manifesto, women are not individuals, but are completely united in their rejection of him.

There’s obviously a lot more in the paper I’m developing for publication, but I hope that this post offers a an insight into how looking at just four terms can be very revealing.

Further reading:
Elliot Rodgers
What a close read of the Isla Vista shooter’s horrific manifesto, “My Twisted World,” says about his values—and ours
“Gay or Asian?” Race, Masculinity, and the UCSB Shooting
On Continuing to Live In the Same World that Made Elliot Rodger (and Many Like Him)

Rape culture
A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture
Fat Girl PhD: The things we tell our girls
Girl On The Net: On whether you have a right to sex
Slut-shamed to death for saying yes to sex, murdered for saying no

Misogyny
Storify: Yes, All Men
Elliot Rodger’s California shooting spree: further proof that misogyny kills
Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism
A Look Inside the ‘Men’s Rights’ Movement That Helped Fuel California Alleged Killer Elliot Rodger
Elliot Rodger was a misogynist – but is that all he was?
Elliot Rodger’s fatal menace: How toxic male entitlement devalues women’s and men’s lives
Lessons From a Day Spent With the UCSB Shooter’s Awful Friends
‘PUAhate’ and ‘ForeverAlone’: inside Elliot Rodger’s online life
Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds
On the Geek Guys’ Elliot Rodger Think Pieces
#YesAllWomen: how Twitter reacted to the shootings in California
Why It’s So Hard for Men to See Misogyny: Men were surprised by #YesAllWomen because men don’t see what women experience

Corpus Linguistics 2013

Ah, the biannual Corpus Linguistics conference…the biggest date in the Corpus Linguistics calendar, the event that Tony McEnery described as more of a bacchanal than a conference.

This is one of my favourite academic conferences – it was the first one I went to as a wee MA student and I’ve been to every one since. Luckily it’s biannual or my wallet would be a thinner, sadder thing. I’ve done a lot of growing up at this series of conferences – first conference I attended, first conference I was a student helper for, first conference I got funding for, first conference I’m presenting at post-viva – and it feels a bit like home turf for me.

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

It was wonderful to catch up with friends and to meet new people. One of the conference helpers, Robbie Love, wrote a great post on his experiences at CL2013 and I’m delighted that he found it such a friendly place.

I was presenting on my PhD research, this time trying to give an overview of how the three approaches I used in my thesis fit together: corpus linguistics, three approaches from critical discourse analysis and, underpinning all of this, an awareness of the social, political and cultural context in which the suffrage movement operated. I only had a limited amount of time to present so decided to show elements of the corpus linguistic analysis and some of the work I did on Emily Wilding Davison using Theo van Leeuwen’s taxonomy of social actors. However, I argued that without an awareness of the historical context, any analysis of these texts would be lacking.

I’ve uploaded the slides so have a look if you’re interested.

One of the cool things about big conferences is that you assemble your own experience. It reminds me a bit of big music festivals with headliners/plenaries most people make an effort to see, then dozens of interesting people and projects. That up-and-coming person you’ve been advised to see, that fascinating project you’ve seen an announcement about, that person that you’ll see because you know they’re a fantastic presenter, that thing you’ll go to because it sounds controversial and you suspect the response will be good, the friend you’ll go and watch for moral support, the person you used to work with back in the day and want to find out what they’re doing now, the one that you’ve never heard of but looks intriguing… Talking to someone else, I realised that it was almost as if we were at two different conferences! It was, once again, fascinating to see how many things corpus linguistics can be used to investigate.

Some of my highlights were:
Michael Hoey giving a characteristically energetic opening plenary
An intense discussion of p-values following Jonathan Culpeper and Jane Demmen‘s talk
Paul Baker‘s beautifully neat demonstration of triangulated methods
Claire Hardaker on trolling (she refused to give the site name of one place, referring to it only as the “internet hate machine” – naturally I knew exactly where she meant)
Alison Sealey on the People, Products, Pets, Pests project
An incredibly lively morning presentation from Laurence Anthony on AntConc
A whole team from Lancaster represented by Paul Rayson on the Metaphor in End of Life Care methodology
Sylvia Jaworska on representing the Other in tourism

Over the course of the conference we also drank a bar dry and drank 180 bottles of wine at the gala dinner, so good work everyone.

And, because Michael P-S claims it’s not a conference without me lurking on my laptop somewhere…

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

Photos by Michael Pace-Sigge can be found here.

Doing interdisciplinarity

Second in what seems to be an occasional series about interdisciplinarity. All posts can be found under the interdisciplinarity tag

One of the most daunting things about my thesis was that I essentially had to learn a new discipline. I could have treated my corpus of hundred year old newspaper articles like a contemporary corpus – the corpora I’d used until then (the British National Corpus, the Guardian corpus and two corpora I’d assembled myself, one of music reviews and the other of children’s stories) were of my time and cultural context and, while I obviously researched the area, I didn’t have to learn about a different time period.

However, I knew that if I was to do any kind of (critical) discourse analysis with these historical newspaper texts, I had to learn about the historical context they operated in. If I didn’t, I would be incapable of recognising discourses – they simply would not register as significant to my contemporary eyes. I would not understand their significance, or the impact they had. The nuances would be lost on me and my thesis would make for possibly an interesting corpus analysis, but useless for anyone interested in the historical or social aspects.

The trouble was that I hadn’t done any history since GCSE. At that age I was pretty sure that my interests lay in warfare, sickness, medicine, death and social history, and not in kings, queens and the nobility. The prospect of being taught by my history teacher for another two years was not a prospect I was willing to entertain. Despite loving history, I reluctantly chose not to study it at A level. As such, I had a lot to learn.

Be aware of the field(s)

My first task was simply to understand the historiography – who was writing about the suffrage movement and how they positioned themselves within the field. I tried to understand the debates within the field, and how people’s research responded to others’ research. I learnt something of the waves of research about the suffrage movement – the first waves comprising of personal memoirs and scholarship focusing on the WSPU, London-based organisations and leading figures of the movement, and a second wave starting in the 1970s and focusing more on hitherto marginalised figures, experiences, ideologies and organisations. There were also historians seeking to synthesise these various perspectives.

I also sought to understand the wider context of the time period – what was going on in terms of politics, family life, Empire, work, health? What were the assumptions about gender roles and how women were supposed to behave? These were the things that were going to come up in the newspapers and which I had to be acquainted with.

One of the ways I did this was to read – a lot. The other was to go along to undergraduate history lectures. These were useful in supplying context and when it came to the lecture on the suffrage movement, I was delighted that it was all stuff I was newly familiar with. This suggested that I was on the right track.

I am also immensely grateful to Dr Chris Godden and Dr Lesley Hall who were generous with their time and advice and who didn’t laugh at me when I described what I was researching, but were kind enough to give the impression I had something useful to offer.

Allow it to shape your research on a fundamental level

In my case, I’d played it safe and requested Times Digital Archive data from between 1903 and 1920. Choosing dates was always going to be arbitrary; 1903-1920 encompasses the period of time from the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union to two years after the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave women the vote. If I wanted a lot more data, I could have asked for 1860 – the decade in which the campaign for women’s suffrage emerged out of other social protest movements – to 1928, the year in which women were granted the franchise on the same terms as men. That was too much to take on for a PhD project, and I had to narrow my focus. I could have simply chosen a five or ten year period – say 1910 to 1915 – but this wouldn’t have made sense in the social context of the time.

My research in history quickly revealed that the outbreak of World War One led to a complete change in the suffrage movement; it forced them to engage with nationalism as revealed and understood through warfare. It was also clear from looking at the initial data that the newspaper’s shift in focus and the amount of news they actually printed changed after 1914. Including the years between 1914 and 1918 would therefore change the scope of the project and that was too much to take on for a PhD project. My research into history also gave me a starting year – 1908, on the cusp of suffrage direct action.

The historical background, therefore, played a crucial role in shaping the project and delineating its boundaries.

It’s not just the icing on the cake

Related to the previous point: I didn’t want the historical analysis to be something I only brought into play in conclusions.

This ties in with a corpus linguistics issue of having to know your data in order to do in-depth work with it. If you handed me a corpus from a culture that I know very little about – let’s say, for sake of argument, Arabic literature – I would probably be able to make some pretty graphs and identify some words which behave in interesting ways and which are perhaps worth further investigation, but because I don’t know the history and the context in which these texts operate, I would be unable to connect these interesting words to things that were happening that would affect the discourses. I wouldn’t know about events, wars, peace treaties, rulers and governments, innovations, philosophies, schools of thought, cultural shifts.

While my work is in (corpus) linguistics – my background is in linguistics, I’m (currently!) based in an English department and my thesis will be examined by linguists – I don’t think I could write a good linguistics thesis using this particular corpus without also writing about history. It’s something I’ve always had in mind when interpreting data – and not just in the sense of “writing about what I’ve observed”. In corpus linguistics, categorising and grouping your data can in itself be a form of interpretation; I found it was vital to understand the historical context in order to come up with meaningful categories. At the moment I’m looking at the news narratives of Emily Wilding Davison’s actions, hospitalisation, death, inquest and funeral procession; these were all reported, sometimes extensively, in the Times. However, a critical discourse analysis approach requires the analyst to be sensitive to what is missing as well as to what is present, and so it is vital for the analyst to be aware of the wider context of the text. This was where an understanding of the historical context is so important. For example, the Times notes that Yates represented Davison’s family at the inquest into her death. A passing comment, perhaps. However, with my knowledge of the suffrage movement, I was able to recognise this man as Thomas Lamartine Yates, husband of one of Davison’s close friends and unofficial WSPU legal advisor. In some ways, this raises more questions than it answers – was he providing his services because of his wife’s association with Davison or does it say something about Davison’s posthumous changing relationship with the WSPU? – but it makes for a richer analysis.

To go with the cake metaphor, I don’t think of my research as a linguistics cake with a tasty history icing. Nor do I think of it as a linguistics and history battenburg cake, nor a linguistics and history marble cake. instead, the two are inseparably mixed.

Be humble

I am not a historian by training. I have undoubtedly made mistakes and been blind to things – interpretations, undercurrents – that a person with 5+ years of intensive study of history behind them would notice. There’s a lot that I don’t know, and if someone asked me to discuss in detail the politics of Empire during this time period or the campaign for equal franchise in the 1920s, I’d struggle. I hope that I’ve been a respectful and sensitive outsider and my work can offer some useful insights to “proper” historians, but I also hope I can accept their inevitable corrections with grace and humility.

Humanities, sciences and interdisciplinarity

First in what seems to be an occasional series about interdisciplinarity. All posts can be found under the interdisciplinarity tag

suffrag* and words statistically associated with it, calculated through Mutual Information (MI)


A couple of weeks ago I read this article about treating humanities like a science and was a bit annoyed about it. In my experience, the big sweeping claims as illustrated in that article tend to be made by a) arts & humanities scholars who’ve suddenly discovered quantitative/computational methods and are terribly excited about it or b) science-y scholars who’ve suddenly discovered arts & humanities and are terribly excited about it. I’ve heard a fair number of papers where the response has been “yes, and how is this relevant?” because while it’s been extremely clever and done something dizzyingly complex with data, it’s either telling arts & humanities people stuff they already know or stuff that they’re not interested in. In my particular discipline people are very aware of the limits of quantitative work and we acknowledge the interpretive work done by the researcher. I do think quantitative methods have a place in arts and humanities, and in this post I’ll discuss some of the strengths of quantitative work.

Firstly, I should say something about my background and where I’m coming from. I’d describe myself as an empirical linguist – I look at language as it’s used rather than try to gain insights through intuition. My background is in corpus linguistics which basically means I use computer programs to look at patterns in large collections of texts. If this sounds suspiciously quantitative then yes…it is. Sometimes I look at which words are statistically likely to occur with other words, or statistically more likely to occur in one (type of) text than another, or trace the frequency of words across different time periods. My thesis chapters tend to have tables and graphs in them. I sometimes talk about p-values and significance.

However, these patterns must be interpreted. Computers can locate these patterns but to interpret them – to understand what they mean for language users – needs a human. As a discourse analyst, I’m interested in the effect different lexical choices have on the people who encounter them. I’m interested in power, in social relationships and in the ways in which identities and groups are constructed through language. A computer would find it difficult to analyse that.

So what can be gained from using corpus linguistics rather than purely qualitative approaches? Paul Baker outlines four ways in which corpus linguistics can be useful: reducing researcher bias, examining the incremental effect of discourse, exploring resistant and changing discourses, and triangulation

reducing researcher bias

Language can be surprising. We have expectations of how language is used that isn’t always borne out by the data. My MA dissertation looked at how male and female children were represented in stories written for children, focusing on how their bodies were used to express things about them. So, for example, I looked at his eyes and her eyes and what words were found around them. What I was expecting was that boys would be presented as active, tough and independent and girls would be presented as more emotional and gentler. What I found was that a) his eyes was much more frequent in the data than her eyes and b) that male characters expressed much more emotions than female characters. Part of this was because there was so much more opportunity to do so because of the higher frequency of his eyes, but the range of emotions – sorrow, joy, compassion – was really interesting and not what I was expecting from the research literature I’d read.

We also have cognitive biases about how we process information and what we notice in a text. We seek evidence that confirms our hypotheses and disregard evidence that doesn’t. We tend to notice things that are extraordinary, original and/or startling rather than things that are common or expected. If we select a number of texts for close, detailed analysis, we might be tempted to choose texts because they support our hypothesis. A corpus helps get around these problems by raising issues of representation and balance of its contents.

examining the incremental effect of discourse

Michael Stubbs, in one of my favourite linguistic metaphors, compares each example of language use to the day’s weather. On its own, whether it rains or shines on any particular day isn’t that significant. However, when we look at lots of days – at months, years, decades or centuries worth of data – we start finding patterns and trends. We stop talking about weather and instead start thinking in terms of climate.

Language is a bit like this. On its own, a particular word use or way of phrasing something may seem insignificant. However, language has a cumulative force. If a particular linguistic construction is used lots of times, it begins to “provide familiar and conventional representations of people and events, by filtering and crystallizing ideas, and by providing pre-fabricated means by which ideas can be easily conveyed and grasped” – through this repetition and reproduction, a discourse can become dominant and “particular definitions and classifications acquire, by repetition, an aura of common sense, and come to seem natural and comprehensive rather than partial and selective” (Stubbs 1996). A corpus can both reveal wider discourses and show unusual or infrequent discourses – both of which may not be identified if a limited number of texts are analysed.

exploring resistant and changing discourses

Discourses are not fixed; they can be challenged and changed. Again, corpora can help locate places where this is happening. A study using a corpus may reveal evidence of the frequency of a feature or provide more information of its pattern of use – for example, linking it to a particular genre, social group, age range, national or ethnic group, political stance or a small and restricted social network. A changing discourse can be examined by using a diachronic corpus or corpora containing texts from different time periods and comparing frequencies or contexts; for example, where a particular pattern is first found then where and how it spreads, if a word has changed semantically, has become more widespread, is used by different groups or has acquired a metaphorical usage.

triangulation

Finally, triangulation. Alan Bryman has a good introduction to this (.pdf) but it basically means using two or more approaches to investigate a research question, then seeing how closely your finds using each approach support each other. I tend to use methodological triangulation and use both quantitative and qualitative approaches. As well as supporting each other, using more than one method allows for greater flexibility in research. I like being able to get a sense of how widespread a pattern is across lots of texts but I also like being able to focus very closely on a handful of texts and analyse them in detail. It’s a bit like using the zoom lens on a camera – different things come into view or focus, but they’re part of the same landscape.

I find quantitative methods fascinating for the different perspective they offer. My background in corpus linguistics has also trained me to think about issues like data sampling, choosing texts to analyse and cherry-picking evidence. It’s taught me to think critically about what and how and why people search for in a text, and it’s made me methodologically rigorous. At the same time, dealing with so much data has made me very sensitive to language and how it’s used in different contexts. I think the author of that article might find some of the work in corpus stylistics fascinating – this is what my supervisor is working on, and having worked a bit with her corpus it’s easy to see how much qualitative literary analysis goes into it.

Returning to the article, I think this raises wider questions of how we approach interdisciplinarity, how we locate and approach research questions in fields not our own, and how we relate to colleagues in these other fields who are experts. If we are to engage in interdisciplinary research, then we are bound to be working in unfamiliar areas. We are going to encounter research methods and ways of thinking that are unfamiliar to us. The ways we approach things will have to be explained – why should a humanities scholar care about “a bunch of trends and statistics and frequencies”? How do we make these relevant to their interests and show them that these can both answer interesting questions and open up new avenues of research? Simultaneously, how do we gently make someone aware that they’ve just dipped a toe in our field and that there’s still much to learn?

This is something that I’ve had to learn. I’m not a historian by background or training, but my area of research deals with historical issues. I’ve had to more or less teach myself early 20th century British history; I did this through extensive reading, gatecrashing undergraduate lectures and talking to historians. In a future blog post I’ll discuss this further so if you have any questions, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer.

References:
Baker, P. (2006). Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum.
Stubbs, M. (1996). Text and Corpus Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell

Issues in trans language

Earlier this month I, along with two other committee members, spoke to Nottingham Lesbian and Gay Switchboard about the trans social and support group we run. One of the things that came up was the complexity of trans terminology. As someone with some knowledge of the community, as someone who is, in a small way, a trans activist, and as someone with a linguistic background I’m intrigued by the words we use and the way we try to create our stories of flux and change out of these words. Words have immense power in this community; often simply knowing the word for something is an act of empowerment, a realisation that there are others like you and there is a place for you in the world. Words can summon identities into being; words can make manifest inchoate feelings of difference and not fitting in. Words are brilliant.

However, I’ve not read a great deal on linguistics and trans issues. I have an interest in language and gender but all too often I find there’s a disconnect between the linguistic research and what I know as an activist. For example, while reading Benwell and Stokoe’s 2006 Discourse and Identity I came across the following:

The speakers are all ‘women’. They are relatively ‘young’, though not ‘teenagers’. They are ‘white’. The presenters’ accents sound ‘upper middle class’. Jane sounds ‘educated’ and ‘middle class’. We presume they are all ‘English’, and we know Jane is ‘heterosexual’ – she has a male partner.

While Benwell and Stokoe do go on to note that “[e]ach of these categories can be further unpacked”, they don’t make any comment about the fairly major assumption they make about Jane’s sexuality. In the activist communities I belong to, someone assuming that a person is heterosexual just because they have a male partner would immediately be questioned about the basis of their assumption. Jane’s last partner could have been a woman. Jane might identify as queer for political reasons. Jane might be polyamorous and have partners of different genders, Jane might be married to a man and monogamous but also attracted to women. As an academic, I have to admit that coming across this assumption in the book’s introduction made me wonder what other assumptions about identity were being made in the book – how far can I trust their analyses of identity if they can make such a basic assumption?

As someone who uses critical discourse analysis in their research, identifying the context of language use is important to understanding it. There are some issues informing the way trans identities are conceptualised within the trans community – the background knowledge and understanding that makes some words acceptable and some unacceptable or unthinkable.

One of the things that I find most striking is the awareness of queer theory; I’ve had much more interesting and informed discussions about gender and queerness at trans socials than I have at research seminars. However, this awareness of gender binaries, gender fluidity, gender performativity, and the power to reshape, reinterpret and individualise gender inevitably comes into conflict with the idea of having an innate sense of one’s “real” gender. Conceptualising gender and gender identity – where it comes from, how it is formed, whether it is innate or realised through performance – is not a theoretical exercise but has profound implications for trans people. If gender is simply realised through performance, then what about bodies and the desire to change our bodies?

However, gender identity itself is problematic. Some people identify as non-gendered – they do not feel they have a gender identity and framing the discourse in these terms is inaccurate, discriminatory and erases their experience.

There is tension between the trans community and the medical profession. People who seek to change their bodies, either through hormones or surgery, usually have to do this through the medical establishment. While there are ways to acquire hormones without medical supervision, this has risks and, at least in my experience, is not recommended (although obviously this differs according to access to appropriate medical care etc). The medical profession, therefore, also act as gatekeepers and control access to care – in the UK, an individual seeking hormones or surgery on the NHS has to go through a Gender Identity Clinic where a panel decides whether they’re suitable for treatment. Not everyone is deemed suitable, and people identifying as genderqueer or non-binary gendered have had particular difficulty in getting approved (although new WPATH guidelines should change this).

However, this brings in the issue of who gets to decide what “trans” is and, indeed, how it should be defined.
Not everyone who identifies as trans wants to medically transition, not all want to transition between binary genders and not all identify in such a way as to make transition straightforward or, indeed, necessary. I’ve heard Nat of Practical Androgyny discuss the terms transsexual, transgender, trans and trans* and how they’re in a constant process of resisting the medicalisation of trans identities, trying to be as inclusive as possible and creating space for ‘new’ identities to exist. Zagria identifies five meanings of transgender and discusses them in the linked essay.

Language itself can also be problematic. The variety of English I use – British English – doesn’t have a gender neutral singular pronoun. This post outlines some alternatives but they aren’t widely known or accepted outside the queer community – as an undergraduate, I got told off for using ze/zir in an essay about gendered language.

This post highlights some problematic language within trans communities. As the author explains

The stories of our bodies, our experiences, and our identities have traditionally been told from a perspective of assumed cissexual superiority. Increasingly, trans people want to be able to speak to one another or to cis people in our own words–words that reflect our lived experiences and empower us as trans people. That means developing a new, trans-positive vocabulary. It also means re-examining the words we use (and the words cis people use for us), tossing out words and phrases that don’t pass muster, and replacing them with better ones.

There are some obviously problematic terms – calling someone a genetic female or XX boy doesn’t really work when you realise how prevalent intersex conditions are; these terms conflate the genotype with the phenotype, but without genetic testing it’s impossible to know what one’s genotype actually is. Less obvious is the problematic use of terms like female-bodied to describe someone female-assigned at birth – some people within the trans community would argue that a female body is a body belonging to someone who identifies as female. These terms seem to wax and wane in their popularity – female assigned at birth/FAAB, assigned female at birth/AFAB, male assigned at birth/MAAB and assigned male at birth/AMAB are terms that I’ve noticed relatively recently.

So, what might a study of trans language look like?

As a linguist, I’d be inclined to break this into three main categories: the umbrella terms used to describe the diversity of trans identities; the terms used to describe identities; the terms used to describe trans bodies.

There have been surveys on trans language, but as a corpus linguist I’m interested in naturally occurring language – while data elicted through surveys can be interesting and useful for identifying words that might be of interest, ultimately I’m more interested in how these words are actually used. Which are common terms? Are certain words used more frequently in different parts of the community? Do these words have different meanings within the community? When do words start being used and how do they spread out? What’s the effect of the internet (particularly user-created material) on language? Do people use language differently if they’re seeking medical involvement or as that progresses? Happily, there are quite a few trans-related sites, forums, tumblrs etc so there is suitable data out there to include in a corpus.

One of the things I’m interested in is fine-grained use of data. My corpus made up of Times Digital Archive texts allows me to split up the data by year and, using some php, by type of article (Letters to the Editor, for example). There are loads of interesting ways to split up the trans data I’d hope to collect and to an extent it depends on what I’m trying to find out. For the questions I outlined above, it would be good to be able to split the corpus by year the text was produced, site it came from from, and some details about the writer – their age, how they identify, the variety of English they use, possibly some information about any medical involvement they’ve had or are seeking (if applicable).

Sadly this has to go on the back burner for now because of my thesis, but at some point I’d love to do more research into this. To me, trans language highlights the explicit negotiation of language in a community. New terms are coined, defined and disputed. It also is a place where queer and gender theory and practice collide in a way that has incredibly important, real-life implications – these are not the debates of the ivory tower, but affect how people lead their lives and indeed, what sort of lives they are able to lead.