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7th August 2018 by

Children’s Word of the Year 2018

It has become a tradition that Oxford Dictionaries for Children announce their annual ‘children’s word of the year’.  For 2018 ‘plastic’ has made the top spot. Jointly with BBC Radio 2, Oxford Dictionaries for Children run a yearly competition – the 500 words challenge, where  five to 13-year-old children write 500-word stories. The 500 words challenge has become part of OUP’s ongoing language and lexical research. Running for the 7th time this year, an amazing 134,790 stories were submitted.

Based on their analysis of the texts, the Oxford Dictionaries for Children’s team, declared plastic the children’s word of the year. The team observed a sharp rise in frequency in comparison with 2017. They see one of the reasons for this rise in David Attenborough’s programme Blue Planet II. Other words with markedly higher frequency include e.g. unicorns, slime, Emmeline Pankhurst, Donald Trump, Brexit and the computer game Fortnite.

The GLARE project is very pleased to be cooperating with Oxford University Press Children’s Dictionaries, which has kindly given us access to a part of their extensive Oxford Children’s Corpus so we can use the data for our corpus research into gender in children’s literature. Corpus research here at the University of Birmingham has got a long tradition, going back to the revolutionary work in corpus lexicography that started here in the 1980s. GLARE has invited Professor Susan Hunston to offer an expert commentary on plastic, word frequencies, and corpus research.

Prof. Susan Hunston, OBE, PhD FAcSS, is internationally renowned for her pioneering research on the COBUILD project, which involved the creation and analysis of the first major electronic body of contemporary mainstream text: the Bank of English. Her ground-breaking work has led to the publication of Pattern Grammar (2000) and Grammar Patterns (1996, 1998), which have been made available online earlier this year.

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A report from Oxford University Press highlights the importance of corpus linguistics in analyzing short stories written by children (press release 6 June 2018). The report focuses on word frequency and on changes in comparative frequency year on year.  The headline news is an increase in the proportional frequency of the noun plastic, reflecting a number of individual stories that feature ocean pollution as a theme.

Headline news can sometimes be misunderstood. One commentator on the story (‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4) said that plastic was the most frequent word in the 2018 stories, which would have made for some very odd texts if it was true. It is not even important that the word has increased substantially from one year to the next. Given that the number of stories written increases year on year, thanks to the increasing popularity of the ‘500 words’ competition, the frequency of many words will inevitably increase. What matters is that plastic, in comparison with other words and with other nouns in particular, has become proportionally more frequent. It also matters how many individual texts include the word once or several times. This will tell us whether several stories feature pollution by plastics and so use the word many times, thus increasing the overall frequency, or whether many of the stories in the corpus, whatever they are about, include one or two mentions of the word. From the press release it would appear that the first of these in the case.

The news report in fact highlights two features of the corpus. One is topic – what the stories are about. Plastic is selected as a topic-indicating word, with slime, suffragette, trump, grenfell and brexit also making the list of ‘newly frequent’ words.  Quoted comments emphasise the children’s awareness of world events and their ability to empathise with suffering. The other feature is creativity, standing, it would appear, as an indicator of good writing. Evidence is given in the form of similes (‘snowflakes swirled like feathers’), imagined realities such as a ‘votes for cats’ campaign, and invented words such as snuffletrump.

Other possibilities for corpus research are alluded to only obliquely in the press release.  Collocations and concordance lines would confirm that plastic is used mainly in the context of oceans and of pollution, and would tell us the extent to which the children writers focus on the problem or on offering solutions, as the quoted examples would seem to suggest. Also of interest is what linguistic resources the writers use to express emotion, empathy and affect. The press release comments that phrases such as the first woman reflect the aspirations of girls, showing that phrases rather than individual words are often the most revealing.

The corpus of stories can be divided according to the age and gender of the writer. This allows observations such as the word unicorn being used mainly by girls aged 5-7. It would also permit more subtle observations. At what age are stories written mainly in the first person or the third person? To what extent does length of sentence increase with age? Given that topic seems to reflect a gender divide, do measures of complexity in sentence structure and word use show any gender difference?

Understandably, the press release focuses on ‘headline’ words – nouns such as plastic, proper nouns such as Emmeline Pankhurst or Facebook, novel words put together from existing morphemes, such as worrycorn. Of equal interest are the grammatical words that tend to go unnoticed in casual reading. A word such as that can occur as a determiner (that day) or as a subordinator (said that; happy that), reflecting an increase in writing sophistication. Prepositions that in a simple way can indicate place (at the station) or time (on Tuesday) can also be used to link ideas (focus on what he said; angry at them for what they did), and this development can also be tracked. Whereas reading the stories will give a sense of what they are about, and how inventive the writers can be, corpus investigation techniques are needed for revealing the hidden picture of language development.

Please cite this blog post as follows: Hunston, S. (2018, 7 August). Children’s Word of the Year 2018 [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.bham.ac.uk/glareproject/2018/08/07/childrens-word-of-the-year-2018/.

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