Friday 8 December 2006

On doing linguistic research

A sixth-form student writes to say that she has been asked to research a certain topic by her teacher, but isn't sure how to set about it. She asks how I do mine, though she says there's sure to be 'a world of difference' between what I do and what she has in mind. And no chance of doing anything original anyway, she says, gloomily.

Well, no world of difference, actually - and every chance. All research comes from the same origins - a curiosity, interest, desire to find out... If you're given a topic that you haven't any interest in, then that is not a good sign. The trick is to find an enthusing topic, and then five minutes discussion about how to find out about it will lead to all kinds of ideas. With language, there are millions of fascinating topics calling out to be investigated, and most of them have never been researched by anyone before. And when you encounter one, if you're a real researcher, you just can't ignore it. I'll give you an example in a minute.

Just think for a second of your own individual situation, wherever you live. Language is all around you. There is stuff out there to do with the way local people talk, the way regional identity turns up in the local newspaper, the slang used in your own school, the way your group texts each other, or uses instant messaging... Nobody else in the world is quite like you, or your group, and there will always be something interesting to discover about how you've personally adapted your language (or languages) to express yourselves. It will be different from the way other groups use language. People younger and older than you are will very likely use different slang expressions, for instance, as will people from different ethnic backgrounds, or males vs females. There's a huge amount of data just waiting to be explored.

If a friend of mine has a baby, I usually congratulate them on the birth of fresh data.

The new technologies offer some of the most fruitful areas for research - and some of the easiest, because the language is written down. What's happening - linguistically, I mean - on YouTube? I have no idea. Not really my scene. But it's bound to be a bit different from anything that's happened before. Instant messaging, texting, chatrooms, and all the other domains of computer-mediated life have received hardly any linguistic study. Just collecting a pile of data from yourself and your friends is a research task in itself - probably easy for you, but difficult for someone like me.

You have to forget the notion that research means huge projects, taking years to complete. There are plenty of those around, sure, but they are far outnumbered by the tiny research projects which add that little bit of extra knowledge to the pile. This is where I always start. I don't wake up in the morning and wonder, 'What shall I research today?' I know that, during the day, a question is bound to come up which will demand research.

Like yesterday, when a Radio 5 reporter rang up wanting to know what I thought about the nicknames cricketers use for each other these days. Excuse me? Haven't cricketers always used nicknames? Dicky Bird came to mind. (I know he was an umpire, but still...) Yes, but he thought these were different. Warnie, Freddie, Goughy, Hoggy... Was there a trend to use the -ie ending more nowadays? I hadn't thought about it. I played for time, and told him it was technically called a diminutive, expressing endearment. He was impressed by that, and wrote it down. I went on to say that I didn't think it was especially modern, though it certainly has replaced earlier endings, such as -ers (Fredders, Johnners) which were around in the 1920s. Well we talked about it inconclusively for a bit, but after he rang off I couldn't leave it alone. When did that ending first start getting used in nicknames? I looked in my Oxford English Dictionary CD under -ie. Just one reference, from 1887, and no mention of sport. Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang claims usage from the 17th century, but with no examples. It certainly isn't in Shakespeare. Is it in Dickens? The questions started to mount up. I called a halt after half-an-hour.

Every day brings such a question. Many of the sidebars in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language originated in just such an enquiry. Sometimes the question comes from outside. Sometimes you notice something yourself. Like the time I wondered what the 'S' stood for in President Harry S Truman. I couldn't find the answer in any encyclopedia: they just had 'Harry S'. It took the best part of two days to find the answer, and in CEEL the result is written up in 15 lines on page 148. Just 15 lines after two days' work. Was it worth it? Oh yes. You're worth it - I always think of language when I hear the l'Oreal catch-phrase.

[Incidentally, the 'S' stood for - nothing. Truman's grandparents were Solomon Young and Shippe Truman. His parents added an S to keep them both happy but didn't say which name it referred to, so the letter was never expanded.]

I do have a couple of larger, long-term, ongoing research projects which are, as it were, my default position - the ones I go back to when nothing else gets in the way. The trouble is that other things always do get in the way - which is why they are long-term and ongoing. One is a project designing a 'sense engine' to facilitate online search (some background can be found at The other is the editing of a huge corpus of poetry from the lay missionary poet John Bradburne - the most prolific poet the English language has ever seen (you can see where it's up to at They are unfinished, and probably unfinishable. But that's par for the course. Most research papers end by saying: 'Our research has raised several questions which need further research'. That's the joy of it. You find out a bit, get to the top of one hill, and see higher hills before you. The subject is always bigger than you are. And the chief personality trait you need as a researcher, IMHO, is humility.


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Unknown said...

So the key to being a researcher is being curious enough to take the time to chase up some of the myriad questions that come up every day, rather than letting life - or new questions - get in the way?
The first example that comes to mind for me is that I'd often wondered about the pronunciation of the name Greenhalgh - the company that deliver sandwiches to our office - but by the time I'm back at my desk, it's forgotten in favour of getting my job done (or eating the sandwich).
As I'm reading 'spell it out' I now have a reasonable idea how it came to have that spelling, but now I'm curious as to the history of the name... but between work, OU study and reading everything I can get my hands on, I doubt I'll find the time to look into it. :)

DC said...

You can often get a quick idea of the issues surrounding a proper name's etymology online. There's a Greenhalgh website, for example - type the name + 'etymology' into Google and you'll find it. A useful scholarly source is Reaney's Dictionary of English Surnames.