Own goals in Italian EL word count fiasco
By Domenico Pacitti
and Discourse" by John Morley: a paper given at the
University of Verona on December 17 2003.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.