Usage fluctuation analysis: A new way of analysing shifts in historical discourse

Tony McEnery

CASS, Lancaster University

Words change their usage over time. This profoundly simple and accessible fact about language is part of our everyday shared experience; if we reflect on the pre-internet meanings of words such as web, network and tweet, usage change is instantly apparent. Lexical changes are often prompted by changes in society, culture and technology requiring new naming strategies for new or modified concepts. This talk introduces a methodology for the diachronic analysis of large historical corpora that looks at the fluctuation of word usage manifested through collocation, that is the co-occurrence of words in texts. In essence, this technique is theory neutral and does not presuppose commitment to any one semantic theory. Instead, it helps to accurately describe large amounts of evidence about word usage, in different contexts, that are available in historical corpora. This talk first addresses the issue of diachronic change in word usage and meaning after which I will present the new technique, Usage Fluctuation Analysis (UFA) detailing some guidelines for the interpretation of the results of the analysis. I will then present three short case studies by applying the technique to three words related to social actors in seventeenth-century Britain - whore, harlot and banker. These case studies will demonstrate the value of the technique by relating the observations to corpus and historical analyses carried out manually (as a validation of the technique) as well as by showing novel observations that the technique affords and that were not previously available.

Week 15 2018/2019

Thursday 14th February 2019