Sharp-eyed pupils from a Birmingham school have used the latest linguistics software, developed by the University of Birmingham and the University of Nottingham, to show that one of the core Christmas catchphrases is a bit of a myth.

Year Eight pupils from Bishop Walsh Catholic School used the specially designed online system to prove that Scrooge did not use the phrase ‘bah humbug’ very frequently at all. The pupils found that ‘bah’ and ‘humbug’ only occur together twice in Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, although ‘humbug’ on its own has a few more repetitions.

The software used by the pupils is called ‘CLiC’ (Corpus Linguistics in Context, It is developed by the Centre for Corpus Research (CCR) at the University of Birmingham as part of the ‘CLiC Dickens’ project – a joint project with the University of Nottingham that was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The simple-to-use online system allows users to study literary texts and find out more about them and their fictional characters. This leads to new insights into how readers perceive fictional people.

CLiC works by letting users choose a single book or a group of books. They can then pull out data relating to how many times specific words or phrases are used and display the contexts in which the words appear, enabling a better understanding of the texts and their characters.

By using CLiC to analyse the complete works of Dickens, academics have been able to extract a broad range of information. This ranges from insights into the presentation of body language (e.g. double-chins and wooden legs in Dickens) to novel findings on how fictional speech and real spoken language are more similar than academic scholarship has so far recognised.

Lorraine Adriano, the English Teacher at Bishop Walsh Catholic School who worked with the children said:

‘I found out about the software and thought it would be a great way of getting my pupils interested in books and their characters.

‘We started with a simple exercise, looking at ‘A Christmas Carol’. They were able to pull out the data that showed that while Scrooge did say ‘bah’ and ‘humbug’ together twice, the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ is actually more frequent than references to humbug.

‘More importantly, using CLiC has made my pupils more enthusiastic about English literature and reading. They have been using it to do their own investigations, often as self-led homework, and they show no signs of stopping.’

Professor Michaela Mahlberg, University of Birmingham and CLiC Dickens project lead said:

‘Since its first public reading in Birmingham in 1853, A Christmas Carol has become a cultural phenomenon. There have been numerous film and television adaptations, with the story being told by characters as diverse as Mickey Mouse, the Muppets, Blackadder and even the cast of EastEnders.

‘Core to its popularity is the phrase “bah humbug”, which appears every year on cards, mugs, socks, jumpers or beer glasses. What pupils at Bishop Walsh Catholic School have investigated is part of a bigger picture where Dickens’s characters become part of mass culture and almost take on a life of their own.

‘The pupils have used CLiC for detailed engagement with the text, but perhaps more importantly, they have found out that our most treasured stories still have much more to tell us.’

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  • CliC Dickens: more can be found out about the project here