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English Language: a short guide to online resources: Corpora

Subjects: English

Introduction to Corpora

A corpus is a collection of texts or text extracts that have been put together to be used as a sample of a language or language variety. It consists of texts that have been produced in 'natural contexts' (published books, ordinary conversation, letters, newspapers, lectures etc), which means it mirrors natural language. A well-composed corpus can be used to answer questions about language use, such as:

Does 'wicked' generally mean 'good' or 'bad'? Has this meaning changed over time? Does the use differ between different kinds of text? Do different (kinds of) speakers use the word in the same way?

A reference corpus (created to be a balanced sample of a language variety) can be used as the basis of comparison between a text/genre and 'standard language'.

Specialised corpora can be used to examine or compare different language varieties, such as language from a particular area, covering a certain genre or text type, produced by particular language users, etc.

Corpora can be synchrone (covering one time) or diachrone (covering several time periods), consist of different media (written or spoken language) and be composed of different languages.

Annotated corpora have extra information added, usually linguistic information (part-of-speech, lemmata) or metadata (infomration about the material in the corpus, speakers/authors, situation, extra-linguistic infomration etc).

There are corpora that can be consulted online, via a custom-built interface, and ones that you explore with stand-alone tools that you install on your computer.

Specialised Corpora

The Old Bailey Corpus
This corpus is based on the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, published from 1674 to 1913. The 2163 volumes contain almost 134 million words. Since the proceedings were taken down in shorthand by scribes in the courtroom, the verbatim passages are arguably as near as we can get to the spoken word of the period. The material thus offers the rare opportunity of analyzing spoken language in a period that has been neglected both with regard to the compilation of primary linguistic data and the description of the structure, variability, and change of English.

Useful links

British National Corpus (20th century English)
A big corpus of written and spoken (transcribed) material from different genres. Considered a standard reference. Available via different tools

  • BNC-BYU Brigham Young University
    http://corpus.byu.edu/bnc/
    Easy to use online interface. Good for quick queries (with or without wordclass tags), overall frequencies, searches in different written genres and collocations. Easy to compare results to other BYU corpora. There is a search limit on the BYU unless you register for an account:
  • BNCweb at Oxford
    http://ota.oerc.ox.ac.uk/bncweb-cgi/BNCweb.pl
    Online interface that makes it easy to make simple and advanced queries and explore the results in various ways. Also allows complex, advanced queries. No search limit.
    NOTE: We recommend you use BNC-BYU (above) or BNCWeb at Lancaster as the Oxford BNCWeb site frequently goes offline.
  • BNCweb at Lancaster
    http://bncweb.lancs.ac.uk/bncwebSignup/
    Same as BNCweb at Oxford but slightly more restricted (number of hits, browse text). Available also to non-Oxford users. Register first to use.

American English

  • Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA)
    http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/
    Avaialble via Brigham Young University, interface same as for BYU-BNC and COHA 
  • Corpus of Historical American English (COHA)
    http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/
    Avaialble via Brigham Young University, interface same as for BYU-BNC and COCA

Old/Middle English