A methodology for qualitative analysis of historical corpus data: new insights about language change from a micro-analytical approach

Grant holder

Dr Tine Breban

Funding agency

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Amount of award


Research associate

Mareike Hamann

Summary of project

Linguists have always been interested in finding out how language changes. This area of research was transformed in the 1980s when electronic resources with large sets of historical data (corpora) became available for study. Corpora made it possible to study language change with quantitative methods for the first time.

Historical corpus linguistics has focused on the development of more and better corpora and of quantitative methods. Methods for qualitative analysis have not been adapted to exploit all possibilities offered by the new resources.

The main objective of this project is to redress this balance and put qualitative research and methodology on the agenda. It will do so by:

  • proposing new qualitative methods to identify changes in historical corpus data;
  • showing the descriptive gain they offer;
  • showing that new data found with this methodology can bear on longstanding questions in historical linguistics such as the question how language change happens.

The project focuses on one particular type of change, that by which linguistic items acquire a new function. This type of change is called grammaticalisation.

An example illustrating the problem is the change of the word 'certain', which originally only occurred in combinations such as 'a certain victory', where it means "sure, guaranteed" and its function is to describe a property of the victory in question.

Through language change, 'certain' developed a new function as determiner, eg 'certain people don't like cats' where 'certain' is equivalent to 'some'. In this change, the form 'certain' remains the same. This raises the question of how we can distinguish between the two functions in historical corpus data and which empirical evidence we can adduce for this change.

This project will systematically investigate types of evidence relating to the form of the item and/or the range of contexts the item occurs in (its distribution) to show what grammaticalisation actually looks like and how we can detect it in historical corpus data. Because the methods investigate individual items, they are said to operate at the micro-level (rather than at the macro-level of abstract concepts such as word classes).

Pathways to impact

The project engages with students working on language change as part of their English A-level. In the language change module, students learn what the English language looks like at different historical stages, and compare old and new meanings, old and new spellings, old and new grammatical patterns, in data from different periods.

This before-and-after approach gives students a good idea of what changes, but cannot explain what the change itself involves or how it can be observed in actual language use in a scientific way.

The project offers a series of lectures and hands-on workshops using historical corpora focusing on 'how' language changes. For information on the lectures and workshops and/or to book them for your students, contact tine.breban@manchester.ac.uk.

You can find out about the project's progress and its outcomes on its Gateway to Research project page.