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Counting language

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain why it is important to count aspects of language, and especially Shakespeare's language.
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A number of the key myths about Shakespeare’s language involve claims about big numbers, such as the number of words he supposedly invented. However, as I’m sure you discovered in the discussion task about how many words Shakespeare invented estimates as to the number of words vary hugely. Part of the problem here is that people are counting different things. That idea of counting things as you will know from last week is also part of the corpus linguistics enterprise. So it is high time that we tackle this topic head on. We will start with a couple of general questions about counting. Why bother to count linguistic items? And why use computers to do the counting?
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And we will turn to what one counts with a computer? One answer is words. For why those are not other things? In the following talks will also discuss some of the key issues and difficulties in counting words. Why bother to count linguistic items? It’s all about patterns. We all deal in patterns even if you consider yourself completely innumerate you also deal in patterns. If you say that something happens frequently, you have observed a pattern of something occurring repeatedly. Conversely if you say that something is rare, you are saying that the expected pattern of frequency does not occur. Remember, you don’t have to state actual numbers to be dealing with patterns of frequency.
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Literary essays often point out that something is rare, frequent, common, scarce, prevalent, abnormal, normal, exceptional, ordinary and so on. Lurking behind those words are frequency patterns. People also use patterns to create meaning, styles, cultures and so on. In fact, you saw something of this last week. Counting things can reveal patterns you don’t know about. Or it can confirm patterns you did have a hunch about. Counting also has the merit that it does not rely on intuition. And it’s relatively precise. Why use computers for counting? Well, there are some obvious advantages. Computers can count up much more than you could possibly in several lifetimes. They are also systematic they are not prone to the accidental slips that humans are.
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But there are some disadvantages too although, perhaps they are not so obvious. Getting computers to count even simple words is not straightforward. And in fact, this is mostly what this video talk is about. Mistakes can lurk within the count that the computer gives you. You cannot take them at face value you always need to at least some spot checking to make sure that the computer didn’t do something silly. Or the person who set the computer up didn’t do something silly. Above all we can never say that humans are redundant. Humans need to decide the what. For example, in what data should the computers count things. And also what exactly to count.
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In addition it’s all very well for the computer to give you results. But the human will be needed to interpret what the results mean. Let’s address the issue of what one counts with a computer. The obvious answer perhaps is words. It need not be words we could count the sounds of language, the structures of language, sentences for example. Or the meanings of language amongst other things. But why might we go for words as something to count rather than those other things? Words carry a fairly large part of the meaning we wish to convey. Words generally but especially some carry at least part of the grammar the structure of language.
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Words are a major part of styles and not just authorial styles. Words are many they are difficult for humans to count in extensive data. And finally words pattern in multiple ways. Let’s wrap up. Identifying patterns is important and counting offers a precise, nuanced and empirical way of doing that. Moreover, the focus on words is justified. Words carry meanings and styles and occur frequently and with great variation. They’re good candidates for computer analysis.

Some of the key myths about Shakespeare’s language revolve around big numbers. That is the key reason we begin this week by thinking about the counting of linguistic items, especially words.

In fact, for many things, counting in order to reveal frequencies, and thereby patterns, is so important. Remember, you don’t actually need to specify a number to be dealing in frequency. You might simply say that something is common or normal, or something else is rare or exceptional. Frequency underlies those descriptive labels.

As a method, corpus-based approaches have a special relationship with frequency patterns, as we will see this week and next. This video focuses on the reasons for counting things, and why we may wish to count words above all else.

What are your feelings about counting things and about numbers? Put your thoughts in the comments.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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