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Corpus studies

Corpora studies: what they can and cannot tell us

Corpora studies (examining large bodies of text for evidence on how language is used) are a relatively recent thing, born in the 19th century. Small corpora were used early in the century, but one of the first to use a significant number of words was the German linguist Kading, who in 1897 managed to put together an 11-million-word corpus (hand collected!), which he used to discern the frequency of certain letters in German. 11 million of anything is an astonishing number of items to collect by hand, although it should be noted that Kading was assisted in his task by an almost equally impressive number of assistants (reputed to be 5,000).

What corpora can do

In the 20th century a number of lexicographers and linguists began to use corpora for such tasks as tracking changes in language use, deciphering subtle differences in meaning between words, and reassessing theories of grammar.

Lately, new corpora have been developed. Various forms of social media have afforded researchers the opportunity to dip into enormous pools of genuine language use, created in a (somewhat) natural environment, and all of it easily accessed by computer. Many people recently became interested in corpora (even if they didn’t actually realize) when a recently published paper analyzing what Twitter posts can tell us about people and their moods received a good deal of attention in the press.

What’s the happiest day of the week?

The paper, ‘Diurnal and Seasonal Mood Vary with Work, Sleep, and Daylength Across Diverse Cultures’, contains a great deal of interesting information, and deals with mood shifts throughout the day in a number of countries. But what seemed to receive the most attention were the reports that seemed to interpret it as saying ‘people are happier on the weekends than they are on Monday morning’. Not exactly a bombshell, perhaps, but it may be comforting to know what you are not the only one suffering from Monday morning blues or SAD.

While the data analyzed by this paper did indeed find that late Saturday night/early Sunday morning was the peak for positive tweets, the authors did refrain from making any such grand pronouncements as ‘we’ve found the happiest time of the week’, and most of their attention was focused on other matters. This does seem to be an intriguing  question, however, and previous research studying what social media texts can tell us about mood has been decidedly conflicted as to which days of the week are the happiest and the saddest.

I don’t like Mondays…

Research from 2010, by Adam D. I. Kramer at the University of Oregon, studying Facebook updates, indicates that Friday is the happiest day of the week, and Monday is the saddest. However, this is gainsaid by a paper from 2009 by Peter Sheridan Dodds and Christopher M. Danforth, studying blog posts (as well as song lyrics, titles, and State of the Union Addresses), which avers that it is Sunday that is the happiest day of the week and Wednesday that is saddest.

But the story doesn’t end there! Dodds and Danforth have conducted new research, studying Twitter users this time, and found that (at least among twitterers, rather than bloggers) Saturday is the happiest day and Tuesday now the saddest day of the week. And we must not overlook the research done in 2006 by Rada Mihalcea and Hugo Liu, which found that among bloggers Saturday was happiest and Wednesday saddest.

Take your pick

Based on these findings it would appear that the happiest day of the week is Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, and the saddest day of the week is Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Thursday was up for grabs, at least until Alan Mislove of Northwestern University, came out with his findings on Twitter users and stated that Thursday evenings are, in fact, the unhappiest time of the week.

Pointing out these largely contradictory results should not be taken as criticism on any part of the work being done by these academics, all of whom have written papers that are well worth reading and which can tell us many interesting things about social media and language use. But one thing I feel fairly certain that they will never be able to categorically confirm is which days of the week are the happiest and the saddest.

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