I’ve made it to the end of the FutureLearn/Lancaster University course on Corpus Linguistics (CL). It ran for 8 weeks and is much more work than any of the previous FutureLearn courses that I have undertaken, so I’m pleased to have made it this far, even if I’ve only been able to dip in and out of activities in the later weeks.

It’s difficult to talk about week 8, because it was all about bad language!  Often used but seldom studied, Tony McEnery had to develop a classification system for these words when he carried out his research, which were, frankly, fascinating, if only because it’s not something we usually think about in that level of detail!  The next video discussed whether men use more bad language than women and whether there is a difference between the words that are used.  There is no statistically significant difference between the amount of bad language uttered by males and females, but the actual words they select do differ.  You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t go into more detail on exactly how those differences manifest, but one thing that came across was the perceived ‘strength’  of the swear words used by men and women – you’ve guessed it: men tend to use ‘stronger’ swear words (based on how offensive film and television audiences find them in studies by the British Board of Film Classification)than women, who tend to use the milder forms.  But there were also statistically significant differences in the categories of usage.  Males used more swear words as adverbial boosters (eg ****** brilliant!) or emphatic adverbs/adjectives (eg he ***** did it!), whereas females used more general expletives and more swear words as premodifying intensifying negative adjectives (eg the **** idiot).

Part 3 investigated how genders interact using bad language – do we use more bad language with or at our own gender or across the gender divide?  Men use more bad language at or among other men than females, while women use it more at or with other females.  Of course, there was a taboo among men about using swear words in front of women, but the norm is there, regardless of this.  Some words are used exclusively at males or females, while others have strong tendencies to be directed at one sex or another.  The male directed words are stronger in terms of their offensiveness.  Likewise, as the fourth video showed, some categories of usage typically select stronger swear words than others.  The destinational category, used when you are angry and want someone to go away, typically uses much stronger words than the general expletive.

Further videos showed that swearing does tend to decline with age, from a peak in the 15-25 category, but Tony McEnery pointed out that this might not have anything to do with the aging process, it could just be the environment in which the words were collected made bad language taboo.  It doesn’t seem to be that they were more often replacing offensive words with non-offensive euphemisms.  The strength of the words used mirrors the frequency, and the stronger categories are used more by the younger age groups.  Social class does affect bad language use, and the study confirmed that lower social classes use more and stronger bad language than the middle and upper classes (although in terms of increasing strength, the results went: DE, C2, AB, C1 (where the social class groups are based on the National Readership Survey codes.

But the results could be skewed when you start considering the way that the corpus was put together.  Although it was put together with similar numbers of words from males and females, from different social classes and different age groups, it was only consistent when divided on the lines of a single variable.  There might, for example, be far more words from male AB speakers aged 45-60 than from female DE speakers aged under 15.  The differences in bad language use are socially constructed.

In the comments, someone pointed out “that females are better at conforming to “good” social norms than males. They are more likely to “be good girls” and less likely to break rules in this patriarchal world. So I think it reflects sexism in language use.” I think this is a good point, and I wonder if use of bad language (and especially strong bad language) likely to be something lower class males do in order to fit in with a stereotype of masculinity which they feel the need to ‘prove’ when they are young. And it’s not just for males, I suppose – there are female groups in which there would be similar peer pressure.  Anyway, I’m no expert on corpus linguistics, sociology nor psychology, so I’d better leave that there.

I’ve downloaded the videos on CQPweb, so I’ve more or less finished the bits that I wanted to do on this course. It’s been an interesting couple of months, and I’ve learned a lot, although there’s plenty more for me to learn by using the EEBO corpus in my research.