Barnbrook, Geoff, 1996:

Language and Computers: A Practical Introduction to the Computer Analysis of Language.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Pp. ix + 209.
(Edinburgh Textbooks in Empirical Linguistics)
ISBN: 0 7486 0785 4
Price: not stated.

reviewed by

Francis R. Jones

Language Centre, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
[Download this review (8K, Rich Text Format)]
Copyright Notice:

First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1996 Francis R. Jones.

The moral rights of the author(s) to be identified as author(s) of this work are asserted in accordance with ss.77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This work may be reproduced without the consent of the author, in part or in whole in any manner and in any medium subject only to the two following conditions:
(a) no charge shall be made for the copy containing the work or the excerpt,
(b) a copy of this notice shall precede the work or the excerpt.

"Concordancing for Curates"

From the title, this book promises a lot. A state-of-the-art overview of computers and language for undergraduates, perhaps. What we get is something rather different: a decent if not over-reader-friendly introduction to computer concordancing, plus a rather dated whistle-stop tour through the rest.

The book opens with a concordancing case-study on spelling variation in Chaucer. Starting with a practical example, especially from the writer's own experience, is no bad principle. The problem is that the learning path that a writer has hacked out by trial and error is not necessarily the best route to tell to a novice reader. Thus, instead of using an off-the-shelf program, Barnbrook uses a specially-written one; and instead of simply feeding in a text and analysing the concordance output, he chooses a text file that requires a lot of preparation. As a result, we quickly get mired in a discussion of technicalities and difficulties, and the actual output - which would mean most to the novice concordance user - is not discussed at all. Not here, anyway. To be sure, good points are made, such as the need to think of the balance of effort between a computer and a manual solution. But the impression given to the naive user - the envisaged reader - is that concordancing requires DIY programming skills and extensive text preparation.

This first Chapter, in fact, encapsulates both the book's strengths and its weaknesses. Thus there is plenty of useful practical how-to-do-it information, at least in the core field of concordancing. But instead of a reader-friendly simple-complex, overview-details progression, we get a mix of beginner-level information (e.g. what is a modem, or shareware) with technical points of detail (e.g. a discussion of mark-up codes) that would deter the uninitiated whilst not being quite comprehensive enough to get the expert very far.

Chapter 2 looks at data sources. Though the overview is sound and thorough, we still do not know why we are annotating texts with mark-up codes, say. And again, reader-unfriendly structuring gives the impression is that concordancing is a complex business.

Chapters 3 to 5, however, give a decent, accessible overview of how to interpret frequency lists and concordancer output, and Chapter 6 looks at the necessarily complex business of semantic tagging. This is probably the most useful part of the book for the novice reader. Underlying structure is given by reference to a single case-study of Shelley's Frankenstein, which is both accessible and interesting. Even in these chapters, however, the temptation to go into superfluous technical detail, but only half-way, should have been resisted: in an otherwise useful discussion on statistical significance, say, raw formulae are given for calculating z-scores, whilst the far more crucial concept of p-values is not even mentioned.

Chapter 7 - "The Leading Edge" - is probably the least successful. It attempts to justify the book's title by giving an overview of word processing, spelling and grammar checkers, computerised lexicography, databases, computer-assisted language learning, expert systems, machine translation, and computer speech recognition - all in 16 pages. The result could perhaps be forgiven for being tantalisingly brief; unfortunately, it is also anything but the leading edge. CALL, for example, is seen as being mainly concerned with imparting and testing linguistic knowledge: even the fascinating area of classroom concordancing hardly gets a look-in. As for machine translation, it is described as being stuck in the mud of the impossibility of fully-automatic text production - until, as with CALL, the long-awaited breakdown truck of natural language processing will arrive to pull it out. Here we are not at the leading edge at all, but somewhere back in the early eighties. Not a word of CALL as a multi-faceted, all-singing and all-dancing enabler of autonomous learning and communicative activities, or of the momentous shift in translation IT over the last few years from machine translation to multi-tool translator's workbench.

And even with concordancing, at least on the technical side, the paradigm that seems to underlie the book is a rather old-fashioned one. The naive reader is left with the impression that generating printouts is a hard, fiddly, program-it-yourself business - not, as is usually the case these days, one of simply clicking on a concordancer icon, selecting a word-processed text, and choosing from a menu of actions. Or, at worst, having first to buy a published concordancer for your own machine. I spotted a single cursory mention, in fact, of an off-the-shelf concordancer (the OCP). Of other commercial programs, no mention - though any prospective user would find an annotated list absolutely invaluable.

Chapter 8 gives a couple more case-studies, both moderately complex. In terms of acquired knowledge, the reader can probably cope with them here; indeed, this would be the right home for the Chaucer case-study from Chapter 1.

After a good glossary, it's DIY time again: the Appendix gives practical programming examples. Which probably is the best place for them: the whole discussion on customising programs, in fact, should have been relegated to here.

This book, in the end, is a bit of a curate's egg. It is worth dipping into for the information on concordancing that it does contain. Perhaps not as a "first-stop", as the cover claims, but for someone who doesn't know much about concordancing, whilst knowing enough to distinguish the central from the peripheral. Whether there are many such people around is another matter.

Return to The Issue 2 contents page | The WJMLL Home Page