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Simon Isserlis (Aston University)

The Language of the Sea: Using corpora to identify usage of maritime expressions in the “English speaking world”.


Britain’s maritime history has fundamentally affected the English language as spoken and written throughout the world. Maritime expressions (MEs), such as “taken aback”, “batten down” , “skyscraper” and “log” are used on a daily basis, usually without any awareness, on the part of the user, of their source. While there has been considerable research into the nature and significance of metaphor in language (including Lakoff and Johnson 2003, Moon 1998), and recent work on the automated extraction of metaphors in corpora (Mason 2004), very little work has been done on the influence of the language of specialised discourses (Gotti 2003) as a force for language change in the wider discourse community and the processes embodied therein.

This paper describes an investigation, carried out at Birmingham University, using the Collins CoBuild Bank of English (BoE), into the distribution and usage of a selection of MEs across the world’s major Anglophone countries: The United Kingdom, The United States, Canada and Australasia. Using the BoE’s well defined subcorpora to provide both regional and generic data, the study demonstrates distinctive differences in use and distribution of specific Mes and draws some tentative conclusions about the reasons for these differences, and the inferences that might be drawn about processes of language change and the influence of specific discourse communities on the speech community at large.

The study provides the foundations for further research, using the Aston Corpus Network (ACORN), to extend our understanding of specialised discourses, through the development of a corpus of “maritime” texts and “parliamentary” texts, to explore the routes that words can take from highly specialised discourse communities to the general speech community of English speakers worldwide.

Gotti, M. (2003). Specialized discourse: linguistic features and changing conventions. Bern ; New York, P. Lang.
Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (2003). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Mason, Z., J (2004). "CorMet: A computational, corpus based Conventional Metaphor Extraction System " Computational Linguistics 30(1): 23-44.
Moon, R. (1998). Fixed expressions and idioms in English : a corpus-based approach. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

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