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2.1.1: Arguments against corpus data

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    The four major points of criticism leveled at the use of corpus data in linguistic research are the following:

    1. corpora are usage data and thus of no use in studying linguistic knowledge;
    2. corpora and the data derived from them are necessarily incomplete;
    3. corpora contain only linguistic forms (represented as graphemic strings), but no information about the semantics, pragmatics, etc. of these forms; and
    4. corpora do not contain negative evidence, i.e., they can only tell us what is possible in a given language, but not what is not possible.

    I will discuss the first three points in the remainder of this section. A fruitful discussion of the fourth point requires a basic understanding of statistics, which will be provided in Chapters 5 and 6, so I will postpone it and come back to it in Chapter 8.

    1.1.1 Corpus data as usage data

    The first point of criticism is the most fundamental one: if corpus data cannot tell us anything about our object of study, there is no reason to use them at all. It is no coincidence that this argument is typically made by proponents of generative syntactic theories, who place much importance on the distinction between what they call performance (roughly, the production and perception of linguistic expressions) and competence (roughly, the mental representation of the linguistic system). Noam Chomsky, one of the first proponents of generative linguistics, argued early on that the exclusive goal of linguistics should be to model competence, and that, therefore, corpora have no place in serious linguistic analysis:

    The speaker has represented in his brain a grammar that gives an ideal account of the structure of the sentences of his language, but, when actually faced with the task of speaking or “understanding”, many other factors act upon his underlying linguistic competence to produce actual performance. He may be confused or have several things in mind, change his plans in midstream, etc. Since this is obviously the condition of most actual linguistic performance, a direct record – an actual corpus – is almost useless, as it stands, for linguistic analysis of any but the most superficial kind (Chomsky 1964: 36, emphasis mine).

    This argument may seem plausible at first glance, but it is based on at least one of two assumptions that do not hold up to closer scrutiny: first, that there is an impenetrable bi-directional barrier between competence and performance, and second, that the influence of confounding factors on linguistic performance cannot be identified in the data.

    The assumption of a barrier between competence and performance is a central axiom in generative linguistics, which famously assumes that language acquisition depends on input only minimally, with an innate “universal grammar” doing most of the work. This assumption has been called into question by a wealth of recent research on language acquisition (see Tomasello 2003 for an overview). But even if we accept the claim that linguistic competence is not derived from linguistic usage, it would seem implausible to accept the converse claim that linguistic usage does not reflect linguistic competence (if it did not, this would raise the question what we need linguistic competence for at all).

    This is where the second assumption comes into play. If we believe that linguistic competence is at least broadly reflected in linguistic performance, as I assume any but the most hardcore generativist theoreticians do, then it should be possible to model linguistic knowledge based on observations of language use – unless there are unidentifiable confounding factors distorting performance, making it impossible to determine which aspects of performance are reflections of competence and which are not. Obviously, confounding factors exist – the confusion and the plan-changes that Chomsky mentions, but also others like tiredness, drunkenness and all the other external influences that potentially interfere with speech production. However, there is no reason to believe that these factors and their distorting influence cannot be identified and taken into account when drawing conclusions from linguistic corpora.1

    Corpus linguistics is in the same situation as any other empirical science with respect to the task of deducing underlying principles from specific manifestations influenced by other factors. For example, Chomsky has repeatedly likened linguistics to physics, but physicists searching for gravitational waves do not reject the idea of observational data on the basis of the argument that there are “many other factors acting upon fluctuations in gravity” and that therefore “a direct record of such fluctuations is almost useless”. Instead, they attempt to identify these factors and subtract them from their measurements.

    In any case, the gap between linguistic usage and linguistic knowledge would be an argument against corpus data only if there were a way of accessing linguistic knowledge directly and without the interference of other factors. Sometimes, intuited data is claimed to fit this description, but as I will discuss in Section 1.2.1, not even Chomsky himself subscribes to this position.

    1.1.2 The incompleteness of corpora

    Next, let us look at the argument that corpora are necessarily incomplete, also a long-standing argument in Chomskyan linguistics:

    [I]t is obvious that the set of grammatical sentences cannot be identified with any particular corpus of utterances obtained by the linguist in field work. Any grammar of a language will project the finite and somewhat accidental corpus of observed utterances to a set (presumably infinite) of grammatical utterances (Chomsky 1957: 15).

    Let us set aside for now the problems associated with the idea of grammaticality and simply replace the word grammatical with conventionally occurring (an equation that Chomsky explicitly rejects). Even the resulting, somewhat weaker statement is quite clearly true, and will remain true no matter how large a corpus we are dealing with. Corpora are incomplete in at least two ways.

    First, corpora – no matter how large – are obviously finite, and thus they can never contain examples of every linguistic phenomenon. As an example, consider the construction [it doesn’t matter the N] (as in the lines It doesn’t matter the colour of the car / But what goes on beneath the bonnet from the Billy Bragg song A Lover Sings).2 There is ample evidence that this is a construction of British English. First, Bragg, a speaker of British English, uses it in a song; second, most native speakers of English will readily provide examples if asked; third, as the examples in (1) show, a simple web query for ⟨ "it doesn't matter the" ⟩ will retrieve hits that have clearly been produced by native speakers of British English and other varieties (note that I enclose corpus queries in angled brackets in order to distinguish them from the linguistic expressions that they are meant to retrieve from the corpus):

    (1) a. It doesn’t matter the reasons people go and see a film as long as they go and see it. (

    b. Remember, it doesn’t matter the size of your garden, or if you live in a flat, there are still lots of small changes you can make that will benefit wildlife. (

    c. It doesn’t matter the context. In the end, trust is about the person extending it. (

    d. It doesn’t matter the color of the uniform, we all work for the greater good. (

    However, the largest currently publicly available linguistic corpus of British English, the one-hundred-million-word British National Corpus, does not contain a single instance of this construction. This is unlikely to be due to the fact that the construction is limited to an informal style, as the BNC contains a reasonable amount of informal language. Instead, it seems more likely that the construction is simply too infrequent to occur in a sample of one hundred million words of text. Thus, someone studying the construction might wrongly conclude that it does not exist in British English on the basis of the BNC.

    Second, linguistic usage is not homogeneous but varies across situations (think of the kind of variation referred to by terms such as dialect, sociolect, genre, register, style etc., which I will discuss in more detail in Section 2.1 below). Clearly, it is, for all intents and purposes, impossible to include this variation in its entirety in a given corpus. This is a problem not only for studies that are interested in linguistic variation but also for studies in core areas such as lexis and grammar: many linguistic patterns are limited to certain varieties, and a corpus that does not contain a particular language variety cannot contain examples of a pattern limited to that variety. For example, the verb croak in the sense ‘die’ is usually used intransitively, but there is one variety in which it also occurs transitively. Consider the following representative examples:

    (2) a. Because he was a skunk and a stool pigeon ... I croaked him just as he was goin’ to call the bulls with a police whistle ... (Veiller, Within the Law)

    b. [Use] your bean. If I had croaked the guy and frisked his wallet, would I have left my signature all over it? (Stout, Some Buried Cesar)

    c. I recall pointing to the loaded double-barreled shotgun on my wall and replying, with a smile, that I would croak at least two of them before they got away. (Thompson, Hell’s Angels)

    Very roughly, we might characterize this variety as tough guy talk, or perhaps tough guy talk as portrayed in crime fiction (I have never come across an example outside of this (sub-)genre). Neither of these varieties is prominent among the text categories represented in the BNC, and therefore the transitive use of croak ‘die’ does not occur in this corpus.3

    The incompleteness of linguistic corpora must therefore be accepted and kept in mind when designing and using such a corpus (something I will discuss in detail in the next chapter). However, it is not an argument against the use of corpora, since any collection of data is necessarily incomplete. One important aspect of scientific work is to build general models from incomplete data and refine them as more data becomes available. The incompleteness of observational data is not seen as an argument against its use in other disciplines, and the argument gained currency in linguistics only because it was largely accepted that intuited data are more complete. I will argue in Section 1.2.2, however, that this is not the case.

    1.1.3 The absence of meaning in corpora

    Finally, let us turn to the argument that corpora do not contain information about the semantics, pragmatics, etc. of the linguistic expressions they contain. Lest anyone get the impression that it is only Chomskyan linguists who reject corpus data, consider the following statement of this argument by George Lakoff, an avowed anti-Chomskyan:

    Corpus linguistics can only provide you with utterances (or written letter sequences or character sequences or sign assemblages). To do cognitive linguistics with corpus data, you need to interpret the data – to give it meaning. The meaning doesn’t occur in the corpus data. Thus, introspection is always used in any cognitive analysis of language [...] (Lakoff 2004).

    Lakoff (and others putting forward this argument) are certainly right: if the corpus itself was all we had, corpus linguistics would be reduced to the detection of formal patterns (such as recurring combinations) in otherwise meaningless strings of symbols.

    There are cases where this is the best we can do, namely, when dealing with documents in an unknown or unidentifiable language. An example is the Phaistos disc, a clay disk discovered in 1908 in Crete. The disc contains a series of symbols that appear to be pictographs (but may, of course, have purely phonological value), arranged in an inward spiral. These pictographs may or may not present a writing system, and no one knows what language, if any, they may represent (in fact, it is not even clear whether the disc is genuine or a fake). However, this has not stopped a number of scholars from linguistics and related fields from identifying a number of intriguing patterns in the series of pictographs and some general parallels to known writing systems (see Robinson (2002: ch. 11) for a fairly in-depth popular account). Some of the results of this research are suggestive and may one day enable us to identify the underlying language and even decipher the message, but until someone does so, there is no way of knowing if the theories are even on the right track.

    It hardly seems desirable to put ourselves in the position of a Phaistos disc scholar artificially, by excluding from our research designs our knowledge of English (or whatever other language our corpus contains); it is quite obvious that we should, as Lakoff (2004) says, interpret the data in the course of our analysis. But does this mean that we are using introspection in the same way as someone inventing sentences and judging their grammaticality?

    I think not. We need to distinguish two different kinds of introspection: (i) intuiting, i.e. practice of introspectively accessing one’s linguistic experience in order to create sentences and assign grammaticality judgments to them; and (ii) interpreting, i.e. the practice of assigning an interpretation (in semantic and pragmatic terms) to an utterance. These are two very different activities, and there is good reason to believe that speakers are better at the second activity than at the first: interpreting linguistic utterances is a natural activity – speakers must interpret everything they hear or read in order to understand it; inventing sentences and judging their grammaticality is not a natural activity – speakers never do it outside of papers on grammatical theory. Thus, one can take the position that interpretation has a place in linguistic research but intuition does not. Nevertheless, interpretation is a subjective activity and there are strict procedures that must be followed when including its results in a research design. This issue will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 4.

    As with the two points of criticism discussed in the preceding subsections, the problem of interpretation would be an argument against the use of corpus data only if there were a method that avoids interpretation completely or that at least allows for interpretation to be made objective.

    1 In fact, there is an entire strand of experimental and corpus-based research that not only takes disfluencies, hesitation, repairs and similar phenomena into account, but actually treats them as object of study in their own right. The body of literature produced by this research is so large that it makes little sense to even begin citing it in detail here, but cf. Kjellmer (2003), Corley & Stewart (2008) and Gilquin & De Cock (2011) for corpus-based approaches.

    2 Note that this really is a grammatical construction in its own right, i.e., it is not a case of right-dislocation (as in It doesn’t matter, the color or It is not important, the color). In cases of right-dislocation, the pronoun and the dislocated noun phrase are co-referential and there is an intonation break before the NP (in standard English orthographies, there is a comma before the NP). In the construction in question, the pronoun and the NP are not co-referential (it functions as a dummy subject) and there is no intonation break (cf. Michaelis & Lambrecht 1996 for a detailed (non-corpus-based) analysis of the very similar [it BE amazing the N]).

    3 A kind of pseudo-transitive use with a dummy object does occur, however: He croaked it meaning ‘he died’, and of course the major use of croak (‘to speak with a creaky voice’) occurs transitively.

    This page titled 2.1.1: Arguments against corpus data is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anatol Stefanowitsch (Language Science Press) .

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