analysis of 100 million words shows what Britons talk about the most

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Beautiful weather today, isn’t it? Time for a cuppa? The way someone speaks, and the words they use, tell us a bit about where a person came from, their social background and even their age. Language reflects and shapes society – as a linguist, it’s my job to find out how.

One way to do this is to analyze large collections of language, which linguists call corpora (or “bodies”). By measuring the frequency of words, we can determine what a particular society or group prioritizes and values.

In research for a new frequency dictionary of British English, my colleague Dana Gablasova and I, both at Lancaster University, analyzed every word in the 2014 British National Corpus.

The corpus is a 100 million word sample of current language. It covers the language used in informal speech, fiction, newspapers, magazines, academic writing and online sources between 2010 and 2020. It is free and publicly accessible at #LancsBox and LancsLex. Here are five frequently discussed topics and some of the words that define them, including how many times they came up per million words.

1. Time and punctuality

According to our analysis, “year” and “time” are the two most frequent nouns in British English, occurring between 1,963 and 1,898 per million words, respectively. People talk and write about them all year round, time (and time) again. The idea of ​​time is closely related to punctuality – something that is highly valued in Britain.

The expressions “in time” and “in time” occur with a combined frequency of 47 per million words. When we look at the choices of individual words related to time, summer (144 per million) is better than winter (63 per million). Sunday (114 per million) and Saturday (104 per million) are spoken and written about more than any other day. The morning (206 per million) is twice as frequent as the afternoon (103 per million) and almost three times as frequent as the evening (70 per million). The most popular month is December (149 per million), followed by March and May (145 and 142 per million respectively).

2. Weather and climate

Cultural stereotypes – and plenty of polling – suggest that Britons often talk about the weather. Our language data supports this.

The word “weather” occurs with a frequency of 60 per million, alongside words such as “pubs” and “restaurant”, which occur with similar frequencies. “Weather” is used most often in online language (mainly emails and text messages) followed by newspapers (weather reports).

Here is an example from the corpus of a casual exchange of text messages that shows typical weather small talk:

Looking at specific weather terms, people talk about the sun more often (91 per million) than rain (51 per million as a noun, and 15 per million as a verb). Storms (32 per million), clouds (39 per million), floods (19 per million) and even snow (37 per million) are given due attention in texts and conversations. Big storms are often referred to by their names, such as Desmond, which caused extensive flooding in 2015.

Climate change (29 per million), emissions (43 per million) and renewable energy (6 per million) also dominate the public discourse, reflecting an increasing focus on longer-term changes , not just the current tense. The combined relative frequencies of these terms increased by 21% between 2010-2015 and 2016-2020.

3. Food and drink

This category reflects eating and drinking habits as well as dietary choices. “Dinner” occurs 68 times per million words, “lunch” 51 times and “breakfast” 43 times per million. The most frequently mentioned food items include eggs, fish, cake, apples, chocolate, cream, chicken, meat, fruit and cheese. And a cultural sweet tooth is evident: cake is spoken about three times more often than salad.

The most commonly mentioned drinks include: tea, wine, coffee, beer, milk, juice and champagne. The quintessentially British tea is almost six times more frequent than champagne.

The graph below shows which words are significantly associated with the verb “to eat”. We measured these to show how strongly the words are connected in text and speech. The closer the word appears to the node in the middle, the stronger the connection – and the size of the circle indicates the frequency of these words together in texts and speech.

4. Feelings

Keep calm and carry on? Although the British disposition is known to be composed and somewhat reserved, the data shows that the most frequent adjective expressing emotion is “happy”. It occurs 208 times per million, often used in phrases that express satisfaction, such as “I’m quite happy to stay at home”.

In contrast, the most frequent adjective expressing a negative emotion is “sorry” (204 per million), which is often used with apologies or polite refusals. Other adjectives expressing emotions include proud, sad (both 54 per million), happy (53 per million), afraid (47 per million) and happy (46 per million).

5. Our body

The 2014 British National Body Review also shows that people spend a lot of time talking about their bodies. Specifically, the five most frequently used words referring to our body are hand, head, eye, foot and heart.

Many uses of words in this category are metaphors or part of fixed expressions. About one-third of the uses of the term “head” are metaphorical or have another meaning, such as a job title: “head of marketing”. Expressions such as “on the one hand”, “in the public eye”, “put your foot down” and “break someone’s heart” are examples of how our bodily experience of the world is present in everyday language as we everyone’s use. day.

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The conversation

The conversation

Vaclav Brezina receives funding from the ESRC, British Council.

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