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Own goals in Italian EL word count fiasco

By Domenico Pacitti

"Corpora and Discourse" by John Morley: a paper given at the University of Verona on December 17 2003.

John Morley’s lamentable paper on English discourse has perhaps one positive virtue. It provides a clear and unequivocal demonstration that abysmal standards at Italian language faculties are not the exclusive reserve of Italians but apply equally to foreign academics in Italy with native-speaker competence in the language of their research. Italian universities have been well described in the international press as constituting an academic black hole. Mr Morley's paper helps drive home the fact that the omnivorous sucking force of this black hole does not spare foreigners, an important point that is often overlooked.

Mr Morley’s official CV boasts that he began his career about forty years ago as a goalkeeper for a top soccer team in Uganda, opting for Italian academia on the eve of Idi Amin's dictatorship. On the basis of the present paper it would be difficult to say whether his decision brought greater benefit to Italy or Uganda.

Morley is concerned to show the value of computer word counts in assessing political bias in English newspaper editorials. A five-page lecture handout contains two such reports relating to the Iraq War. The reports are taken from The Guardian and The Mirror and are based on background modules of 51,701 words and 21,214 words respectively. Both are set against a wider collection of no less than 1.25 million words of reporting on the same subject extracted from a total of ten UK and US newspapers.

Morley lists forty-five words together with their percentage recurrences in each of the two newspapers. He points out, for example, that the word “Tony” [Blair] appears 105 times in the Mirror corpus but only 55 times in the Guardian corpus. On the other hand, “Mr” appears just 96 times in the Mirror but 435 times in the Guardian. So what does this show? It looks as if Morley wants to say that referring to the British prime minister as “Tony” confirms proximity and agreement whereas calling him “Mr Blair” confirms the opposite. You need only state this contention in order to see how patently absurd it is. Other examples fare no better. But Morley, his brain evidently benumbed by the stultifying effects of 1.25 million words that obstinately resist intelligent classification in his canonical categories, fails to perceive the absurdity.

Morley also introduces “key concepts” to interpret his word counts. The key concepts, which include “semantic prosody” and “lexical priming”, serve no real purpose other than to allow Morley to mimic scientific rigour, a practice that is entirely in line with standard Italian academic convention. Nor does Morley seem capable of even constructing any concrete scientific hypotheses. These facts together help explain why Morley fails to reach any conclusions.

In outline the project might have been expected to produce interesting results in the hands of a competent academic. Sadly, however, Morley proves hopelessly inadequate to the task, becoming increasingly immersed in a plethora of word frequency detail which he is unable to interpret with any conviction or lucidity. Clearly on a hiding to nothing with his “never-mind-the-depth-feel-the-breadth” approach, Morley is visibly embarrassed by his own muddled and awkward presentation. The distinct impression is that he would have felt a good deal more at ease between two goalposts than on a lecture-room podium.

Interestingly and in marked contrast to Morley’s effort, a serious study of media bias on the Falklands War in 1982 was once carried out by the Glasgow University sociology department’s Media Group. The study appears to have used observation and rational analysis rather futile mountains of computerised words couched in pseudo-scientific jargon. It is said to have so incensed the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher that she considered closing them down by withdrawing funding.

Regrettably, Morley and his department at Siena run no similar risk. The likely prospect of his continuing to squander Italian research funding on publishing this and similar material while at the same time teaching it to unsuspecting sycophantic students and having them write about it in graduation theses is of little interest to Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi and higher education minister Letizia Moratti. Pending the unlikely event of serious Italian research on the subject with politically incisive conclusions, Morley and his colleagues can look forward to endless hours of futile, politically innocuous computer entertainment – all at the Italian taxpayer’s expense.

Mr Morley began teaching at the University of Siena in 1987 and was elected to a senior post in English linguistics at the faculty of political sciences in 2000.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on December 21 2003.