Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English
Volume 11

Developing Corpus Methodology for Historical Pragmatics

Edited by Carla Suhr & Irma Taavitsainen
Research Unit for Variation, Contacts and Change in English (VARIENG), University of Helsinki

Publication date: 2012


Jucker, Andreas H., Irma Taavitsainen & Gerold Schneider
Semantic corpus trawling: Expressions of “courtesy” and “politeness” in the Helsinki Corpus

This article studies politeness related terminology in the history of English with the aim of shedding some new light on the long diachrony of the folk notion of “politeness”, and at the same time we assess the usefulness of the research method which we call “metacommunicative expression analysis”. Metacommunicative expressions are words and phrases used to talk about aspects of communication, or a particular type of behaviour, such as “polite” or “impolite”. The semantic field of expressions that have been used in the history of English to talk about polite and courteous behaviour was charted with the help of the new research tool, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. The frequencies of politeness related vocabulary items were then studied in the Helsinki Corpus. This exercise revealed areas of higher or lower density of politeness related vocabulary at particular points in the history of the English language and in specific prototypical text categories in the Helsinki Corpus. In the end, the analysis had to go back to the actual texts and interpret the specific politeness related vocabulary in their contexts. The analysis reveals the multifaceted nature of politeness and its manifestations at different points in the history of English and in different text categories.

Claridge, Claudia
Of fox-sized mice and a thousand men: Hyperbole in Old English

The paper explores the use of exaggeration in OE writing based on the definition of hyperbole worked out for modern English material in Claridge (2010). The discussion of problems of identifying hyperbole specific to OE sources (such as presented by mythical or religious writing) is followed by a comprehensive study of selected items (words containing the form death; thousand, quantity and dimension items) in the Old English Corpus and by in-depth scrutiny of various individual works (Beowulf, Battle of Malden, Battle of Brunanburh, Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, Apollonius of Tyre, works by Wulfstan and Ælfric). Hyperbole is found to be fairly rare overall, but with noticeable differences between authors (e.g. Wulfstan's more hyperbolic vs. Ælfric's more down-to-earth style) and not common in epic poetry. OE hyperboles seem to be rather conventional in nature instead of creative. The forms found reveal nothing surprising or specifically Old English from the modern perspective: superlative, universal descriptors, negation, comparison, quantity terms, exaggeration within contrasts, and the piling technique are all familiar form. In spite of the different nature of Old English and modern texts, the functions fulfilled by the OE instances are familiar from modern data. OE exaggeration is used to serve graphic emotional expression, to praise and to criticize by magnifying either positive or negative aspects, in the latter case also to further persuasion, and to aid in creating or characterising a foreign world.

Williams, Graham
Searching for verbal irony in historical corpora: a pilot study of mock and scorn in the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse

This pilot study investigates the feasibility of searching for verbal irony in historical corpora – specifically for the Middle English period (c.1200–1500). As irony is not readily associable with any formal linguistic features, searching is performed using mock and scorn – words shown to have been associated with the concept of verbal irony before the word irony had been anglicized. By searching for variations of mock and scorn in the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, this study exhibits how informed indirect searching can be employed in order to successfully extract historical examples of verbal irony from digital corpora.

Busse, Beatrix and Ulrich Busse
Methodological suggestions for investigating Shakespearean discourse markers in old texts of Shakespeare’s plays

The underlying idea of the present paper is to illustrate how the investigation of Shakespearean discourse markers in old texts of Shakespeare’s plays can be fruitful for the retrieval of historical forms, historical usage as well as preference for particular forms and for determining how small adjustments in the use of discourse markers add to subtle changes of meaning.

We explore the interplay between editorial considerations and pragma-linguistic questions. In particular, we will focus on the relationship between old texts and early printings and the choices of discourse markers displayed in them.

By drawing on Volume IX of Spevack’s (1968–1980) Shakespeare Concordance we investigate discourse markers by means of the following methodological triangulation: We start by examining whether discourse markers are affected – and if so how – when textual passages are altered in a given play. To this end, we studied Romeo and Juliet (Rom.) as a test case because it has got an interesting textual situation with three existing old printings. In a second approach, we investigate a specific form of a discourse marker, well, for those plays, which according to Volume IX of the Spakespeare Concordance show considerable variation in old (and new) editions. Finally, we deal with discourse markers which have been identified by B. Busse (2010a, 2012) as stance adverbials in the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s plays.

We would like to answer the following questions:

  • What discourse markers are used in the different versions of the texts available?
  • What are the results if the different versions are compared to each other?
  • What additional information do we get about the status of discourse markers in Shakespeare’s plays by doing this?

Kozlowski, Jacek
Variation and emotional affect: the case of quiten and aquiten

This article provides an analysis of two closely related Middle English verbs, quiten and acquiten. The two verbs differ in their form by the prefix a- but are otherwise similar in meaning. Several previous studies on prefix verbs in Old and Middle English are briefly reviewed, and the article seeks to demonstrate that the speaker's choice between the two verb forms can at least in part be explained on pragmatic grounds. Specifically, the analysis shows that emotional affect is a salient factor in the distribution of the two verb forms. The article uses corpus methodology and provides close readings of authentic passages which contain the verbs. The conclusion suggests that further study of specific verb forms in conjunction with emotional affect, as well as a diachronic view of prefix and simplex function, variation, and change would greatly improve our knowledge of prefixes in earlier stages of English.

Mazzon, Gabriella
I’m afraid I’ll have to stop now… Your time is up, I’m afraid. Corpus studies and the development of attitudinal markers

Within historical pragmatics, particular attention has recently been devoted to items that signal attitudes or have discourse-orienting functions, and that thus highlight the variable rate of subjectivity or intersubjectivity over time in specific genres. The abundant studies on modal markers, interjections, and linkers are all examples of this. The present contribution exploits these new advances for the analysis of the development of the marker I’m afraid, trying to trace the paths through which it acquired its present functions and syntactic position, from matrix clause to parenthetical or comment clause. The development is similar to that of other attitudinal items such as I think or I guess, but the pragmatic uses are different. The few diachronic studies available use various sources, but do not appear to tackle the various phases of this development in a systematic fashion. The present study employs corpora from different times, and concentrates on speech-related genres, which naturally show a greater abundance of attitudinal markers. Results show that some functions of the expression go back to Late Middle English, while others are relatively recent. Thus, it is possible to suggest a timeline not only for syntactic developments, but also for the occurrence of I’m afraid in different text-types and in different interactional contexts. This timeline reveals how different pragmatic functions gradually emerge from texts in a time sequence, and the overlapping that is typical of the multi-functionality of many discourse markers.

Oinonen, Raisa
Yours to command: Politeness and an Early Modern English subscription formula

This paper presents a corpus-linguistic study of one subscription formula popular in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century correspondence, focusing on the politeness aspects in its form and use. The lexical politeness devices and social context of the formula are quantified. Following politeness theory, the social context is analysed in terms of relational distance and interlocutor’s relative power. These aspects of social context are compared to the positive and negative politeness devices used in the formula.

Kohnen, Thomas
A toolkit for constructing corpus networks

The aim of this paper is to look at the advantages and challenges of linking (diachronic) corpora and, thus, of constructing corpus networks. It indicates parameters which may serve as tools for determining whether corpora or sections of corpora can be compared and fruitfully linked. These parameters will be presented in the form of a toolkit for annotating (sections of) existing corpora. The parameters relate mostly to functional text structure (text functions, interactive format and publication format) and the position of texts within a genre or domain structure (hierarchies, sets and chains of genres). The article also looks at the possible interdependence of the different parameters and the various kinds of similarity they ensure.