A Virtual Museum of Language for Oxford

Originally posted at blogs.it.ox.ac.uk on November 4, 2015 by Martin Wynne. IT Services at the University of Oxford has decided to delete a large number of historical blogs, and this is one of a number of posts related to the Oxford Text Archive which are being re-published here, after being laboriously retrieved from the archive provided by the Wayback Machine.

The University of Oxford is home to unrivalled collections of  materials and expertise relating to human language, dispersed across faculties, museums, libraries and other units. A pilot project is proposed to imagine a new virtual museum, which would bring together and feature online resources and information about physical collections at the University of Oxford, in the various museums, galleries and libraries. The visitor to the website would see images, video, sound and text, to entertain and to inform about some aspect of language and its use. The collections of the virtual museum would start by creating exhibits which draw together existing materials, and then be built up over time with a series of new online exhibits created by guest curators. Exhibits could feature digital images of artefacts in museums, opportunities for exploring language resources online, interactive language games, podcasts and blogs about research in the University. The intended audience would be the general public, including sixth form students.

The museum could work closely with, and not try to replace or compete with, existing outreach activities. It should be seen as a portal to help web visitors to find ways to navigate to the wealth of language-related online resources created by people in different parts of the University. Obvious partners, already involved in outreach, engagement, dissemination and knowledge exchange activities online would be TORCH, Oxford Sparks, Digital Humanities at Oxford, Digital.Bodleian and numerous websites provided by OUP for language learners and others interested in language. The museum could also provide a platform for new citizen science and crowd-sourcing projects.

Language is a feature of all disciplines in the university, sometimes directly as the sole object of study, but more often as one component in more complex objects and processes, and almost ubiquitously as the medium of communication. Linguists study language, but all human and social scientists study social and cultural phenomena which are infused with language. There are scientists who study physical, mental and medical aspects of language, but all conduct the large part of their communications via language.

The distributed collections would include obvious candidates for material from the following faculties: Modern Languages; Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics; Oriental Studies; Classics; English Language and Literature, but all would be welcome to contribute. One of the key uses of the museum would be to offer a route for dissemination and outreach for research projects by presenting their research and their outputs to a general audience, and the musuem could be a central pathway to impact for these and other disciplines.

In Social Sciences, initial exhibits could be sought from Anthropology (relating to endangered languages), Education (particularly relating to language teaching and learning), Oxford Internet Institute (language on the web). The Migration Observatory (http://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/) is involved in large-scale linguistic analysis of public discourse about migration, as a sociological research topic and to inform social policy and to inform the general public, and has existing materials relevant for a museum exhibit on this topic (see, for example http://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/2013/pr-2013-migration_media/).

In Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division (MPLS), the e-Research Centre and the Computational Linguistics Group in Computer Science are already home to research projects focussed on language, and Medical Sciences is involved in research, treatment and therapy relating to numerous aspects of human language. Exhibits could build on existing collaborations on themes relating to medical humanities, the history of science, and humanities and science (especially TORCH themes and networks), and the degree course in  Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics (http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses-listing/psychology-philosophy-and-linguistics).

Oxford University Press could potentially provide exhibits relating to:

  • The Press Archive (e.g. old printing presses, books, artefacts relating to the history of the OED);
  • Oxford English Dictionary (OED);
  • Dictionaries and Scholarship online;
  • Relevant entries from the DNB (e.g famous linguists and linguistic innovators);
  • Monographs (some full-text online) on linguistics and history of language monographs, and also examples of different language varieties exemplified in publications from different periods;
  • Corpora of contemporary language  (e.g Oxford Corpus of English, Oxford Twitter Corpus).

Relevant exhibits from the Bodleian Libraries are practically limitless, and could certainly include materials from:

  • Centre for Digital Scholarship;
  • Centre for the Study of the Book;
  • Special collections;
  • Digital.Bodleian;

and all of the libraries in the University would of course be encouraged to create exhibits. The Language Centre and the Department for Continuing Education are also likely to be potential collaborators.

The representation of materials and artefacts in the Museums would be a key pillar of the virtual museum. All University Museums would be encouraged to contribute, with some obvious candidates being early language inscriptions and tablets in the Ashmolean Museum, audio recordings by anthropologists in the Pitt Rivers. The University Museum of National History could bring in an evolutionary perspective, and perhaps something on animal communication from. Collaborations with the the galleries and visual art should also be explored.

Featured themes could bring together cross-disciplinary perspectives, and could include, for example, real-time monitoring of public and social media discourse on selected themes (e.g. Europe, environment, migration, etc.),  500 years of the history of printing, language of the reformation (2017 will be the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses), the Language of the first world war, etc..

Some exhibits in the virtual museum would draw on existing online materials, e.g.

Simple interfaces would also be offered to search language resources online, such as the British National Corpus (BNC) simple search, and the similar services for many other languages, e.g. http://clarin.eu/content/services. Further possible services from the virtual museum could be ‘Ask an expert’, where language-related queries could be answered and discussed.Other potential participants outside the university could be invited to contribute, although the intention would be to maintain a strong University of Oxford identity and branding for the museum. Potential external partners could include the Oxford Brookes publishing course, Digital Oxford, schools, other publishers in addition to OUP, The Story Museum, and other museums and libraries. The CLARIN-UK network could also be invited to contribute exhibits. CLARIN-UK is a consoritum of linguistics experts in the UK who have come together to promote the use of online and digital resources in research in the humanitiies and social sciences and beyond. Potential exhibits here could be based on the Metaphor Map, SCOTS corpus, the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches in Social Sciences, text mining from the GATE team at the University of Sheffield, etc. Some of the activites and resources involved can be seen at the CLARIN-UK website.

As well as being inspired by existing collections and research in Oxford, the developing ideas for this museum have drawn on a number of sources, including discussions with the Ludwig Eichinger, Director of a new Museum of the German Language which is under development in Mannheim, and the proposals for an English Language Museum in Winchester (http://www.englishproject.org/resources/english-language-museum-winchester), and a proposal made for by David Crystal some years ago for a London Language Museum (http://www.davidcrystal.community.librios.com/?fileid=-4845 [PDF file]). These are all proposed as physical museums, but they usefully draw attention to the gap in the market, and the potential breadth of relevant exhibits. The Language at Leeds initiative also shows how language can be at the centre of a truly multi-disciplinary activity in a University.

More suggestions and volunteers to contribute are welcome!

Analyzing the Language of Social Media

Originally posted at blogs.it.ox.ac.uk on March 25, 2015 by Martin Wynne. IT Services at the University of Oxford has decided to delete a large number of historical blogs, and this is one of a number of posts related to the Oxford Text Archive which are being re-published here, after being laboriously retrieved from the archive provided by the Wayback Machine.

The eighth one-day event Corpus Linguistics in the South was held at the University of Reading on Saturday 15th November 2014, and focussed on research analysing the language of social media.

Dawn Knight (Newcastle University) spoke about the ‘spoken-ness of e-language’, exploring the positioning of online discourse in relation to the norms of spoken and written language. In short, is language online more like speech or writing?

There are several interesting aspects to Dawn’s project. Explicit permission to re-use and share the data was obtained from all contributors, who were active and popular participants in online discourses. Anonymization of private personal data was carried out, but the data set does not seem to be available for other scholars to use. Funding for the project came from Cambridge University Press, who, it appears, are not willing to share the data.

One starting hypothesis is that there is a continuum of formality for interactive language, with writing at one end and speech on the other (see, for example, David Crystal, English as Global Language, 2003). Can we map different forms (blogs, tweets, email, discussion forums, SMS) onto this continuum?

Pronouns and deictic markers are interesting. In spoken interaction there are typically references to people, actions and things in the shared immediate context, and (probably as a result of this) pronouns and deictic markers are typically more common in speech. Corpora also show that personal pronouns, adverbs and interjections are more common in speech. In this sense, the e-language corpus looks more like speech than writing, despite asynchronicity of the discourse and the lack of shared space. Dawn suggests that there might be an over-compensation, since in online forums we are more reliant, almost exclusively reliant, on language for interactional aspects of communication.

Some results went against expectations – ‘shall’ and ‘must’ are thought to be generally in decline, particularly in informal registers, but proved to be more frequent than expected in SMS language. Discussion forums proved to be most like speech in many ways, despite their low interactivity and asynchronicity.

Dawn’s approach looks promising, and the initial results are suggestive. Further research could involve visualization of the multidimensional comparisons between corpora, for example, to explore more fine-grained identifications of similarities between different e-language and language types in a reference corpus.

The next two papers in the morning focussed on the analysis of particular online forums. Daniel Hunt (QMU) explored the language of an online forum for sufferers of anorexia. An approach based on keywords showed ways in which participants in the forum present their illness as an entity external to themselves, thus presenting themselves as passive and unaccountable. Amanda Potts (Lancaster University) presented an exploration of ‘queer’ sexual innuendo in an area of discourse and human activity that was new to me – commentaries accompanying highly popular videos of Minecraft games. It wasn’t clear to me that either project was able to draw conclusions that they couldn’t have drawn from simply reading the texts in their relatively small datasets, nor that there was anything particularly interesting or significant about the particular issues, themes and areas of social media which they had chosen.

Amy Aisha Brown (Open University) set out to examine English in Japan via Twitter, but the analysis seemed to be of tweets in Japanese which included references to the English language, so I’m afraid that I was a bit lost. She seemed to draw the conclusion that fluency in English is generally considered in a positive way in the Japanese twittersphere. Amy used a Windows desktop application Tweet Archivist Desktop and a programme called KH Coder for cleaning and analysis. Again, the data is not being shared and no indication whether this might ever be possible.

Alison Sealey and Chris Pak (Lancaster University) reported on a small-scale analysis of references to animals on Twitter, part of a larger project examining discourse about animals. The project used an online service called Topsy to find tweets, but it wasn’t clear to me how the analysis and the results are arrived at, are or what the research questions are.

Rachelle Vessey (Newcastle University) took a more theoretical tack, characterising mainstream corpus linguistics as being mainly concerned with, and focussed on, notions of stability and normativity, and on standard languages. The idea of ‘superdiversity’, was presented as a cultural successor to multiculturalism, with an assumption of more diverse and fast-changing cultural formations. She has pursued this issue in the context of Canadian language politics, examining tweets relating to a recent controversy known as ‘pastagate’. The data in this project, like others here today, was somewhat complicated by the large number of retweets. The somewhat underwhelming conclusion was that the largely separate English and French language communities operate separately in Twitter.

Yin Yin Lu (Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford) is investigating the linguistics of the Twitter hashtag. She has used the Streaming API, which offers access to a restricted number of tweets according to filters. She used a keyword filter with the hundred most frequently used words in English, sampled in one-hour slots over a two-week period. (Interestingly, she didn’t have access to a server to do this on in Oxford, and used a server at a different University thanks to a family connection.) Her analysis focussed on a few examples of how hashtags were used in activist campaigns such as #bringbackourgirls.

The final talk from Diana Maynard (University of Sheffield) introduced a research project, ‘Decarbonet‘, which aims not only to investigate what people think about climate change, but to ‘raise awareness’ and foster ‘behavioural change’. Diana’s part in this is to analyse discourse about climate change in social media.

Overall, it was clear that there are still some serious hurdles to accessing social media data, processing it for use with standard text analysis tools, and sharing the results and datasets. I was hoping to find examples of workflows which could access big datasets and analyze them in close to real time, but I haven’t found that yet. I’ll keep looking!