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Word Gatherers

When people who study language want to explore how others speak or write, it is very important for them to collect lots of examples of people speaking and writing so that they get a better picture of how words are used.

To do this, people who study language have to gather large collections of words. They have to go and find out how language is being used and record it so that they can collect and later explore all of those words. They have to become word gatherers.

But the life of a word gatherer is sometimes tough. Having lots of examples, of lots of people, using lots of language is very messy. Think about it: if you were to write down everything you said and wrote in one day, how many pieces of paper would you use? How much time would it take you to find a particular word in all that writing? If you were to compare your pieces of paper to your friend’s, would you know how many more times you used a particular word than they had? And, do you think that if you compared your own and your friend’s pieces of paper that they would be the same as those of all your other friends?

One way that linguists make their messy collections of words easier to explore is by using computer programs. These programs sort all of the muddled language examples that the word gatherer collected. The program will count how many times each word has been used, it will tell the word gatherer what kind of word it is (a noun, an adjective and so on), and it will tell the word gatherer whether their messy collection of words is the same or different to other word gatherers’ collections of words (just like if you compared your own and your friend’s piece of paper).

By collecting and sharing their collections of words, word gatherers have a much better picture of how language is used by different groups of people (like your mum or your friend) or across different ways of communicating (like the words used in computer games or in a magazine).

Recently, two members of the Lingo team travelled to Germany to talk to some word gatherers. They decided that they were going to work together to collect a million words of English speech. Can you imagine a million words? If you wrote them down, you’d fill around 2,000 pages!

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