As part of my introduction to corpus linguistics, the study of language based on data from large electronic collections of actual language use, I show my students how in a recent BBC news report the word migrant was used to label people trying to reach Britain in dinghies. Slightly odd, isn’t it? Why would you pick a dinghy to move here? You really do risk ruining the £1,000 suit which you’ll need on your first day at work. And I ask them to determine why a journalist might choose the term migrant over refugee or asylum seeker, without knowing anything at all about the people on those boats.
First, we dive into the British National Corpus (BNC), a database of 100 million words drawn from a wide range of genres, created in the 80s and 90s. When we look up the words immigrant(s) and refugee(s) there, we see that the word refugee has strong associations with the adjective political and genuine. But also, with certain regions including Bosnia, Kurdistan, Palestine/Gaza and Somalia, areas where large numbers of people were displaced in the 80s and 90s because of political unrest, hunger and (civil) war.
The word immigrant forms different associations, the strongest being with the adjective illegal. Interestingly, not much further down are adjectives such as Italian and Irish, quite likely in reference to a much older wave of immigration from the UK to the US - oh, how short memory is!Professor Dagmar Divjak - University of Birmingham
The word immigrant forms different associations, the strongest being with the adjective illegal. Interestingly, not much further down are adjectives such as Italian and Irish, quite likely in reference to a much older wave of immigration from the UK to the US - oh, how short memory is! The word migrant(s) follows a similar pattern, with illegal topping the charts, followed by references to economic activity such as Summer, rural and labour.
The data suggest that there is a clear split: (im)migrants were here for economic reasons, while refugees were knocking on our doors because of political circumstances. Of course, the BNC is now rather old. We can scale things up and explore the same terms using Google Ngram viewer which allows us to go back all the way to 1800 and search hundreds of millions of words, all the way up to and including 2019. And there too, the same pattern emerges. We see a much higher frequency of occurrence for illegal immigrant than for illegal refugee or asylum seeker, which are virtually non-existent expressions. Refugees appear to be political and genuine. Migrants are strongly associated with the adjective economical, and the expression continues to grow in frequency of use.
Now frequency is a curious thing: it’s long been known that what we do frequently, we do faster, and we do better. That’s because we have automated the behaviour. And doing something automatically means you do not need to expend much effort or attention. Once you have learned how to operate the gears and pedals in a car, you can drive while discussing immigration policy with your passenger, if you like. The same applies to language. If you are a fluent speaker of English, you do not need to pause and reflect whether it’s strong tea you want to order, or powerful tea. Or whether you want to ask your friend over for a quick bite or a fast bite. That’s because you know which words go together well. And while that knowledge forms the cornerstone of fluency, it comes at a cost. You start to expect certain combinations. And these combinations are not always neutral. If a word is typically heard in positive or negative contexts, it assumes a positive or negative connotation: when you hear midlife, you think crisis, when you hear cause your expect problems. Corpus linguists call it the semantic prosody of a word.
So why, I ask my students, do you think news outlets now indiscriminately use the term migrant to label people trying to reach British shores? Because if we call them migrants, they tell me, they can be branded as coming here for economic reasons. They will take our jobs away. And such people we do not want here. And if they insist on coming here despite us not wanting them, then the trouble they might get into while crossing the Channel is of their own choosing. These unwelcome guests need a good telling off, and sending back whence they came. But would they be called refugees they’d appeal to our humanity and our ethical values would dictate we rush out and save them from the perils of the sea. That we bring them safely to shore and welcome them: offer them a warm room, and a nice cup of tea. Make them feel at home. That would be the least we could do, after all they’ve been through.
Such is the power of language: you do not have to use a word to wield its power. If words are used together often, it’s enough to just use one, and it will implicitly activate the other. While language cannot alter reality, it does contribute to how we perceive it.