Changing language in unprecedented times

Language is an extraordinary social phenomenon. An extraordinary event such as the coronavirus pandemic exerts pressure on individual and collective language resources. To explain the consequences of these pressures we look at words, grammar, and figures of speech such as metaphor, with examples taken from news reports and also from large collections of texts, or corpora.

Over the past few weeks new technical terms, such as Covid-19, have come into common use and everyday words, such as isolation, distance and lockdown, have been repurposed.  New words have been invented, such as the neologism covidiot coined through the process known as ‘blending’. Our thoughts have been guided by wartime metaphors, and our behaviour influenced by a carefully-crafted public discourse.

Commuters in London, woman wearing mask

Language change in response to events can be illustrated by the terms social distance and social distancing from a corpus of ‘news on the web’, part of the corpus resources available from www.english-corpora.org. Between January and June 2019, social distance occurred 24 times and social distancing 2 times. All the instances relate to the metaphoric distance between social groups such as ‘workers’ and ‘bosses’. Between January and March 2020, social distance occurred 1,854 times and social distancing a massive 36,044 times. The vast majority of instances relate to physical distance between people to reduce infection risks. What is interesting is not only the increase in numbers but the increased preference for the -ing form noun: social distancing. Another striking feature is the nouns and verbs used with these phrases. These indicate encouragement rather than coercion: advice, guidelines, recommendations, and a willing compliance with these: maintain, keep, observe, adhere to, comply with. There are (to date) only a very few instances of ‘coercion’ words such as enforce or requirements.

The word coronavirus demonstrates the lay adoption of a technical word. The ‘COVID-19’ corpus (available from the SketchEngine suite of corpus resources at www.sketchengine.eu), which consists of academic research articles on the subject, shows the technical use. There are many varieties of coronavirus, and the word generally appears with a modifier to specify the individual type: the SARS coronavirus, the MERS coronavirus and so on. In the UK currently, however, the coronavirus, often shortened to the virus or corona, means only COVID-19. Unlike in the technical literature, it appears unmodified (how the virus is affecting…, businesses hit by the virus). It also modifies a flexible range of other nouns, identifying people affected by the illness (coronavirus cases, coronavirus victims) or responding to it (his coronavirus taskforce), referring to actions and events ((corona)virus testing, the (corona)virus outbreak, our strange corona lives) and expressing a judgement about the situation (the coronavirus challenge, the coronavirus crisis). As new concepts develop in response to circumstances, it combines to form even longer noun phrases. The longest I have found has six words: the coronavirus business interruption load scheme.

More interestingly, the word is beginning to be used to stand in metonymically for a complex set of circumstances. Just as nine eleven is now used to mean ‘the attack on the New York World Trade Centre on the 11th September 2001’ in phrases such as as a result of nine eleven, so the virus is starting to be used to indicate a general set of circumstances rather than an organism: long before the coronavirus; coronavirus is a national emergency.

While many language choices are sub-conscious, public language is often carefully crafted. There is evidence that the language used by government and health authorities is designed to promote acceptance of and compliance with containment measures. One example is the pervasive use of the ‘war’ metaphor. Some of these are brief mentions in passing, such as descriptions of medical staff on the front line or in the firing line. There are more focused characterisations of government directives as defending the country from the pandemic or defeat[ing] the coronavirus, in what is called an unseen war against an unseen enemy. At the more extreme end there are elaborately worked analogies, such as Paul Nurse’s appeal to a collective memory of little ships used in the Dunkirk evacuation, applied to the work of small virus testing labs. Metaphors simplify complex situations, but shared metaphors also create a sense of community cohesion.

The other side of this community coin is the construction of a sense of responsibility, achieved through ascribing agency to the general public. The phrase flattening the curve is one of a range of phrases coming from the visualisation of numbers through graphs (a huge spike in cases and these alarming upward curves are other examples). Note that there are two options for expressing this, because flatten is an ‘ergative’ verb. We could say ‘the curve flattens’ (the curve is the Subject of the sentence) or ‘someone / someone’s action flattens the curve’ (the curve is the Object of the sentence). Choosing the second option puts responsibility for this statistical outcome on to human actions, and this is what we encounter, in utterances such as you are managing to flatten the curve or we need to stay in lockdown now to flatten the curve. The grammatical character of the verb flatten helps to deliver the message.


Photograph of Professor Susan HunstonProfessor Susan Hunston OBE is Professor of English Language in the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on Corpus Linguistics and Discourse Analysis, in particular the study of evaluative language and the analysis of written academic English.