Summer at SILK Road

In July 2014, I and four other students from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) at Lancaster University (Sophie Barker, James Lester, Eleanor Richards-Johnson, and Gillian Smith) travelled to Hong Kong to attend the SILK Road International Summer School.


The three week summer school, organised by Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), in affiliation with Xi’an Jiaotong University (XJTU), was attended by students from countries all over the world, including Hong Kong, mainland China, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States of America, Thailand, and South Korea. Its aim was to encourage students to “Study in and Intercultural environment and Learn to be Kreative” (SILK), and this was made possible by hosting an internationally diverse cohort of students. At the helm of the summer school was Lancaster University Linguistics alumni Dr Xu Xunfeng, who accompanied us for the entire duration of the course.

We took two out of a choice of four credit-bearing university modules. These courses, usually delivered across an entire term, were adapted to be taught intensively. As such, we received eight hours of contact time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and were required to prepare readings and assignments in between classes. The courses offered were:

  • Buddhism, Daoism and Chinese Culture
  • Chinese Geography and Travel
  • Loanwords: a Kaleidoscope of Cultures and Languages in Contact
  • Cultural Identities and Representations (taught in Mandarin Chinese)

The first week took place at PolyU in Hong Kong, where we were housed in PolyU’s student accommodation. The second and third weeks were hosted at XJTU in mainland China, where we were accompanied and taught largely by the same staff from PolyU, and stayed in a hotel. Each module differed in terms of assessment style, but they all concluded with group presentations on the final day of contact time, which consolidated some aspect of the learning experience. At the end of the course, we returned to Hong Kong for one more night before travelling home.

In addition to taking classes, we were taken on day trips every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, to a series of cultural sites both in Hong Kong and Xi’an. These included the Terracotta Army at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, the Zhongnan Mountains, the Wild Goose Pagodas, and the Tang Dynasty Palace Theatre. In addition there was some free time for us to explore both Hong Kong and Xi’an independently – all in all we certainly had a chance to squeeze in a fair amount of sight-seeing amongst all the studying!

This was the first time that the SILK Road International Summer School had taken place, and it proved to be a valuable, educational, and enjoyable experience for all of us who were lucky enough to be there. The organisers have already announced that the summer school will run again next year, and I hope it is even more successful than this year. I am very grateful to both Hong Kong Polytechnic University and FASS at Lancaster University for funding our trip.

Dispatch from YLMP2014

In April I had the pleasure of travelling to Poland to attend the Young Linguists’ Meeting in Poznań (YLMP), a congress for young linguists who are interested in interdisciplinary research and stepping beyond the realm of traditional linguistic study. Hosted over three days by the Faculty of English at Adam Mickiewicz University, the congress featured over 100 talks by linguists young and old, including plenary lectures by Lancaster’s very own Paul Baker and Jane Sunderland. I was one of three Lancaster students to attend the congress, along with undergraduate Agnes Szafranski and fellow MA student Charis Yang Zhang.

From left to right: me, Jane Sunderland, Charis Yhang and Paul Baker

From left to right: me, Jane Sunderland, Charis Zhang and Paul Baker

What struck me about the congress, aside from the warm hospitality of the organizers, was the sheer breadth of topics that were covered over the weekend. All of the presenters were more than qualified to describe their work as linguistics, but perhaps for the first time I saw within just how many domains such a discipline can be applied. At least four sessions ran in parallel at any given time, and themes ranged from gender and sexuality to EFL and even psycholinguistics. There were optional workshops as well as six plenary talks. On the second day of the conference, as part of the language and society stream, I presented a corpus-assisted critical discourse analysis of the UK national press reporting of the immediate aftermath of the May 2013 murder of soldier Lee Rigby. I was happy to have a lively and engaged audience who had some really interesting questions for me at the end, and I enjoyed the conversations that followed this at the reception in the evening!

What was most encouraging about the congress was the drive and enthusiasm shared by all of the ‘young linguists’ in attendance. I now feel part of a generation of young minds who are hungry to improve not only our own work but hopefully, in time, the field(s) of linguistics as a whole. After my fantastic experience at the Boya Forum at Beijing Foreign Studies University last autumn, I was happy to spend time again celebrating the work of undergraduate and postgraduate students, and early-career linguists. There was a willingness to listen, to share ideas, and to (constructively) criticise where appropriate, and as a result I left Poznań feeling very optimistic about the future of linguistic study. I look forward to returning to the next edition of YLMP, because from what I saw at this one, there is a new generation of linguists eager to push the investigation of language to the next level.

The Twitter reaction to the sentencing of the Lee Rigby murderers – 26th February 2014

by Robbie Love, Tony McEnery & Stephen Wattam


The ESRC-funded Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) at Lancaster University has undertaken some preliminary research into the immediate reaction on Twitter to the sentencing of the Lee Rigby murderers on Wednesday 26th February 2014. This document summarises our findings.


On the afternoon of Wednesday 22nd May 2013, British soldier Lee Rigby was murdered by two men, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, London. The attack, which was carried out in broad daylight, quickly became a major national news story. In December 2013 the perpetrators were found guilty of murder and were sentenced on Wednesday 26th February 2014. Adebolajo received a whole-life sentence (meaning he will never be released) and Adebowale received a life sentence with a minimum term of 45 years imprisonment.

How the research was carried out

We carried out our research by using the Twitter API to collect a large amount of tweets[1] that referred to the Rigby case, in some way, between 00.00 and 23.59 on Wednesday 26th February 2014. All tweets containing one or more of the following terms were included in our search:

rigby, adebolajo, adebowale, woolwich trial, woolwich sentence, woolwich      sentencing, justice Sweeney, #leerigby, #rigbytrial, #rigbysentence, #woolwich, #woolwichmurder, #woolwichattack, #woolwichtrial

Using these search terms we collected a total of 57,097 tweets over the 24 hour period, which included retweets (RTs), quotes etc. This amounted to a total of 1,109,136 words of Twitter discussion about the case. We then used a set of tools and methods developed in corpus linguistics to find out the ways in which Twitter users discussed the sentencing on the day of the decision.


The following is a selection of preliminary findings based on the analysis of the tweets.

  • Nearly two thirds of the tweets were retweets[2]

Nearly 35,000 tweets (60.1% of tweets) included the retweet abbreviation RT. This confirms that Twitter discussion of the Lee Rigby case was highly retweeted and shared by Twitter users. The top ten most frequently retweeted Twitter handles appear to have been:

Rank Handle Description
1 @bbcbreaking Breaking news account for BBC News
2 @skymarkwhite Home Affairs Correspondent for Sky News
3 @skynewsbreak Breaking news account for Sky News
4 @poppypride1 An “independent account supporting all troop charities”
5 @jakeleonardx Young footballer at Crewe Alexandra Academy
6 @itvnews Main account for ITV News
7 @courtnewsuk News reports account for the Old Bailey
8 @thesunnewspaper Main account for The Sun newspaper
9 @bbcnews Main account for BBC News
10 @unnamedinsider Satirical commentator

Based on these it seems that the most popular form of Twitter interaction relating to the Rigby sentencing was to retweet news updates from well-known news providers including the BBC News, Sky News, ITV News and The Sun. @jakeleonardx is not a celebrity (he has less than 1,000 followers), but when he tweeted a photo of Lee Rigby’s son with the caption “Poor little lad, RIP Lee Rigby”, it was retweeted nearly 1,000 times. @unnamedinsider appears to be better known (with over 34,000 followers), and posted two tweets ridiculing the BNP and EDL protesters who had gathered outside of the Old Bailey for the sentencing.

  • The most salient word (apart from names and Twitter terms) was life

Twitter users were very concerned with the nature of the sentence being delivered in the sentencing, using the word ‘life’ 19,498 times (34.1% of tweets). The most common three-word phrase this was used in was life in prison (4,369 times, 7.7% of tweets), confirming that Twitter users were not concerned about the loss of life but rather the restriction of those of the perpetrators.

  • Some Twitter users wanted more than whole-life terms for the perpetrators

As well as whole-life terms, Twitter users strongly expressed their opinion about other punishments they deemed suitable for the perpetrators. In particular, highly salient words like rot, deserve, should and hang indicate this. The most popular three-word expression relating to such desired punishments is rot in hell. Furthermore the word deserve occurred 1,295 times (2.3% of tweets), an indication of a clear evaluation of the sanction proposed: popular four-word phrases containing deserve included deserve a life sentence, deserve to be hung, and deserve the death penalty. Likewise the word should is almost exclusively used to wish death upon the perpetrators of the murder, while hang relates to the most popular way in which Twitter users wanted capital punishment to be undertaken upon the killers.

  • Michael Adebolajo was discussed more than Michael Adebowale

The surname ‘Adebolajo’ was tweeted 15,092 times (26.4% of tweets) compared to ‘Adebowale’ being tweeted only 11,729 times (20.5% of tweets). This indicates that the perpetrator, who received the whole-life sentence was of more concern for tweeters than the perpetrator who received the less severe punishment.

  • The most salient word used to describe Adebolajo and Adebowale was scum, and the most salient swear word was cunts

Twitter’s word of choice for the perpetrators was scum, which occurred 1,466 times (2.6% of tweets). Popular phrases included ‘the scum’, ‘this scum’, ‘two scum’, ‘them scum’ and ‘those scum’, and popular words that combined with scum include absolute, fucking, murdering and jihadi. Furthermore, the swear word cunts was used 800 times in tweets about the Rigby sentencing (1.4% of tweets). This further indicates that, as expected, there was considerable disapproval and anger expressed towards the perpetrators. Words that combined with cunts to describe the perpetrators included dirty, sick, horrible, fucking, evil, scummy, vile, muslim, murdering and filthy.

  • In terms of religion, Twitter users were most concerned about Islam

The three most salient religious words were islamistas, Islam and Muslim. Islamistas (Spanish for Islamists) occurred in Spanish language tweets reporting the result of the sentencing (though most tweets were produced in English, and by users from the UK, there appears to have been activity from all over the world).  The other terms mostly occur in retweets and discussions about the judge’s statement that the perpetrators had betrayed Islam by murdering Rigby. The general opinion appears to be that the murder was nothing to do with the religion of Islam.


This preliminary analysis, using tools and methods from corpus linguistics, has captured a general impression of the Twitter reaction to the sentencing of the Lee Rigby murderers. It seems that the main reaction centred around the nature of the sentencing and the Twitter users’ wishes for both Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale to receive at least a whole-life sentence but preferably death. Furthermore some Twitter users appeared unrestrained in their willingness to use offensive language to describe the killers.

[1] As many as possible were collected, but given the immediacy of the event and the nature of the search method, we acknowledge that Twitter users may have tweeted about the Rigby trial without using any of these terms.

[2] This may have been even higher than this if we take into account retweets that do not contain the letters ‘RT’.

April update

Hello one and all! We’re at the end of the Easter break which means I’m now two terms into my MA year at CASS. My thesis deadline approaches in mid-August and there is A LOT to do between now and then, but – for now – here’s a recap of what’s being going on since my last update in January.

Recent project happenings

After spending most of the festive season surrounded by wrestling metaphors, concordances about Muslims, and sociolinguistics it was great to get the feedback from my first term MA modules. I came out with two distinctions and a merit which meant I officially qualified to transfer to the “MA by research” track. So in January I started work on my MA thesis which is, roughly speaking, an investigation into the methodological issues surrounding spoken corpus compilation. What it does mean is that recently I’ve been getting my family involved by handing them dictaphones and asking them to record each other’s conversations in all sorts of situations – can’t wait to hear the recordings back next week!

I’ve also been carrying on work looking at the press reaction to the May 2013 murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London. Recently we’ve started adding in the reaction to the story on Twitter, which started with a quick and dirty analysis a couple of months ago. On February 26th this year Lee Rigby’s killers were sentenced for their crime. The very next morning, I was writing an analysis of the immediate Twitter reaction to the sentencing and, by the lunchtime that day, it was published as a blog on the CASS website (co-authored with Tony McEnery and Stephen Wattam). It was certainly a fun morning of seeing how much could be found in a very short period of time.

Looking ahead to post-MA life, I ended up at Cambridge University Press last week to discuss a future project which I’m really excited about. One of the most important lessons I learned that day was to…

Wise words from Claire Dembry, Lancaster alumni.

Wise words from Cambridge University Press.

…courtesy of Claire Dembry, a former Lancastrian who made the move to Cambridge following her PhD. Looking forward to getting cracking with it soon!

Other tidbits

Aside from the research I’ve been doing recently it certainly feels like this has been the term for talks!

  • In February I plunged in at the deep end and gave my first 50 minute talk in the final LAEL Society meeting of the academic year. I split my talk between postgrad life in Lancaster as well as my MA work on the representation of Muslims in the initial Lee Rigby murder press reporting. I felt a little bit out of my depth talking for so long (and I suddenly realised how tiring it must be to give lectures potentially several times a day!) but it was great to give it a go and it seemed to go down well.
  • Next came, in fairly quick succession, three more tests in the form of presenting the same talk (the Lee Rigby work) three times in three very different settings. First came the Asia Pacific Corpus Linguistics Conference at the Polytechnic University in Hong Kong. The entire trip was, from beginning to end, a really, really positive experience and possibly the happiest time of the year so far (come to think of it I really should have given the Hong Kong trip a blog of its own…never mind!).
Doing my thing at the APCLC in Hong Kong.

Doing my thing at the APCLC in Hong Kong.


  • I then took the same talk to the UCREL corpus research seminar which I shared with another MA student, Adam O’Hara. What was great about this was that among the small audience for the session was Geoff Leech, whose career has spanned over five decades – no pressure then! I’m very grateful to him for coming to see our talks.
  • Finally I put the work on the Lee Rigby murder press reaction (as it was) to bed by presenting it for the final time at the Young Linguists’ Meeting in Poznan, Poland. Unlike the Hong Kong trip I did manage to write a blog about the Poland trip – check it out on the CASS website.

So it’s been a busy few weeks of talks but the experience of putting myself in those situations has been really valuable. Talking about your work succinctly and clearly is a really useful skill (if nothing else but to avoid boring the hell out of your family at Christmas…) so I know that the more I do it the easier it will get – and I’m keen to get as good as I can at this sort of thing.

More generally I think I can see things a lot more clearly than I could three months ago – the next term is much lighter in terms of weekly contact hours so I’ll have much more time to sit for full working days and make headway on my MA project. Aside from that I’m already looking ahead to life after the MA which I now know much more about than I did even a couple of weeks ago. At the moment at least, it’s looking exciting, challenging and stimulating.

I’ll be back soon as there’s always more to say. We’re quickly approaching the summer of conferences and I’m looking forward to making appearances at IVACS (in my hometown of Newcastle no less!) the 5th UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference and maybe even (fingers crossed) the LAEL postgrad conference in July.

Until then…keep calm…and use the corpus!

January Update

Hello! Now that we’re well into the new year I thought it was time for an update on the recent happenings in CASS-world. Today is the end of the first week of Term 2 as an MA student of Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University, as well as Research Student at CASS. As was evident last term I’ve had a healthy dose of both lives and it seems there’s plenty more to come in 2014.

Recent project happenings

In my mid-term update back in November I described the work I had started, and was planning to work on, to submit as my Term 1 MA assignments. I’m pleased to say that on the most part I stuck to my plans and deliberately worked on a diverse selection of linguistic research. I finished my corpus-assisted analysis of the press representation of Muslim people and Islam after the Woolwich attack in good time to get my metaphor in wrestling commentary paper completely finished before the Christmas holidays too. Dare I say the latter was a fun bit of work that required hours of watching and re-watching wrestling videos on YouTube as well as about a week of office time coding lines of data in a spreadsheet. I’m hoping that it paid off and showed that there’s more to pro-wrestling than necessarily meets the eye!

The only assignment which threw a curve-ball was my sociolinguistic plan to invade Lancaster’s coffee shops and listen to the ways in which people ordered drinks. It turned out to be too difficult to carry out properly in the time I had left over Christmas so I opted to start preparing for my MA dissertation by writing a bit of a sociolinguistically-informed design. Not quite as exciting as coffee but at least it’s given me a head start with thinking about the work I’ll be doing for the rest of the year.

Current happenings

After a lovely two week break at home in sunny Newcastle I got cracking on some more independent research with Tony for Muslim media awareness group iEngage. This time we were asked to look at the depiction of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in the British press over the last five years. This was a much bigger task than the Woolwich research simply because of the much wider time span and, subsequently, much larger corpus. I was working with nearly 6 million words of press reports which was the most data I’ve worked with so far! Hopefully, like the last, the results will be useful to those who are interested in them.

Currently I’m starting to get into my MA dissertation work and reading up on all things corpus linguistics. I’m doing a double credit dissertation which means that, instead of doing another 3 modules for credit this term (like last term) I’m starting my dissertation now which will take me all the way through until mid-August. This is the largest single piece of work I’ve had to do so far and will surely be good preparation for the ever-looming PhD which I can now say I begin later this year! How things are moving so quickly.

Other tidbits

  • Just before Christmas I got to go back to my old high school to give a talk to the A-level English Language students there. It was great to go back and to chat to the students about their plans for their imminent departure from high school life. What was great to see was that they had covered a little bit about corpus linguistics in one of their lessons, which I certainly don’t remember from when I studied English Language there!
  •  The next day I was back in Lancaster to give a talk to some students at the Management School here at the University – I had been asked to talk about the process of writing a dissertation; however being from a completely different discipline I found myself saying very little about my own undergraduate dissertation and more generally about time management and stress reduction.

Overall it’s been nice to get stuck into a few different projects and feel like I’m developing more with everything I do. I think this term and especially, at this stage, the conference in Hong Kong, will be an early test of how I’m coming along with the transition towards being an independent researcher. I’m in quite a unique position at the moment in that I am straddling between the student life that I have known for the last three years at Lancaster and this new, more professionally oriented, lifestyle. I think that come next year I will be much more settled into this new role but I must be honest in saying for now it does all feel a little odd. I’m sure that as time goes on, and I get even busier in the world of corpus linguistics, things will feel a lot more clear.

Until next time!