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Corpus-based Studies of Diachronic English

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Roberta Facchinetti and Matti Rissanen

Corpus-based studies of diachronic English have been thriving over the last three decades to such an extent that the validity of corpora in the enrichment of historical linguistic research is now undeniable. The present book is a collection of papers illustrating the state of the art in corpus-based research on diachronic English, by means of case-study expositions, software presentations, and theoretical discussions on the topic. The majority of these papers were delivered at the 25 th Conference of the International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English (ICAME), held at the University of Verona on 18-23 May 2004. A number of typological and geographical varieties of English are tackled in the book: from general to specialized English, from British to Australian English, from written to speech-related registers. In order to discuss their tenets, the contributors draw on corpora and dictionaries from different centuries, including the most recent ones; hence, they testify to the fact that past and present are so strongly interlocked and so inextricably entwined that it proves hard – if not preposterous – to fully understand Present-day English structure and features without turning back to the previous centuries for an in-depth knowledge of the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the current state of the art.

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ANNE CURZAN / CHRIS C. PALMER: The Importance of Historical Corpora, Reliability, and Reading 17

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ANNE CURZAN / CHRIS C. PALMER The Importance of Historical Corpora, Reliability, and Reading 1. Introduction Many publications about historical corpus linguistics over the past ten to fifteen years have stressed the rich possibilities that electronic databases open for both research and teaching on the history of the English language. In fact, one of the authors of this study wrote, as the opening sentence to an abstract for the MLA Annual Convention in December 2004: “New electronic databases or corpora have created exciting possibilities for research on the history of the English language, of a scale unimaginable even a few decades ago”. This study is not intended to challenge this statement or others of its ilk. Instead, it aims to make explicit the perils that endanger corpus-based historical linguistic research and the objectives that are critical to the field’s success. It is the metaphorical caution label for how to use these exciting new resources in ways that are as responsible and reliable as possible. It is also the goals statement for how to make historical corpus linguistics studies as interesting as possible to a wider audience of linguists and historians of English. The fact that historical linguists can now do searches in three seconds that would previously have taken three decades creates a new kind of pressure for us to come to brilliant conclusions based on our three-seconds worth of research. (This is an exaggeration, but it captures the idea). It leads to the temptation to overgeneralize from the numbers...

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