This post started as a Labor Day post, but then I decided to make it about a very funny experience with my former Turkish students. For Labor Day weekend, I thought I'd look up some idioms and expressions about work and whatnot. The first expression that comes to mind when I hear the word labor is the expression slave labor. I remember when I was working as a graduate assistant on a yearly stipend, I overheard someone say the GAs were paid "slave labor." My stipend was quite low, but I certainly wasn't working for free! Anyway, as I thought about this expression, my gut told me it was more popular in American English, but I can't make a claim based solely on my gut, can I?

This might sound weird, but I love to double-check my intuition using a corpus. Sure, I'm a native speaker and my intuition can tell me a lot of things, but it's always good to make sure. So what do you do when you have questions about the Americanness of an expression versus the Britishness or the Canadianness, for that matter? Luckily, Mark Davies at BYU has developed and released a new corpus called the GloEbE (Corpus of Global Web-Based English). The coolest thing about it is that you can search for an expression or word and see its popularity based on national websites, so I was able to type in slave labor and see what countries use that expression the most online:
It looks like we have a winner (well, it's at least prima facie evidence that slave labor is more popular in American English).

Sometimes I do these kinds of tests in class (okay, actually, I might do them more than sometimes). I had a group of really high-performing Turks one year that would challenge me on many grammar points--not all Turks are as feisty, but this group certainly gave me a run for my money (interestingly, a run for [possessive pronoun] money is 58% more likely on British websites than American ones). Anyway, each time they would contend that a particular form did exist in English, and I told them it did not, they would say, "Check the corpus!" I would type the words into the search box, request a drum roll, and hit enter. Most of the time I won (as in the case of I forgot VERB-ING, which they swore up and down was correct), but on some occasions I lost (as in the infamous case of the breakfast).

I was eating the breakfast...

One day a student said, "He called while I was eating the breakfast."
"No, we actually never say 'the breakfast.'"
"What do you say then?"
"We would just say breakfast. I have never heard someone say 'the breakfast.'"
Soon the room erupted in Turkish murmuring.
"Can you check the corpus?"
"Sure, but I'm telling you, we don't ever say this."

Then there it was. Over 1000 instances. I looked at many of the results and saw that breakfast was actually acting as an adjective in them, but still there were instances where the breakfast was a grammatical construction. I tried to backpedal and acknowledge that in some cases one could say the breakfast when referring to a specific breakfast on a special occasion, but that in most cases, when referring to the run of the mill meal we eat every morning, the breakfast is inappropriate. Nevertheless, this did not stop "Remember the breakfast!" from becoming the rallying cry among those Turks whenever the grammaticality of a statement was called into question.

I learned that a teacher must be very careful to avoid generalizations and that a corpus is a double-edged sword.

Have a good Labor Day, and good luck out there!

-Bill
 


Comments

Diane Nicholls
09/03/2013 5:17am

Hi Bill, it's great to see teachers checking their intuitions and enthusing their students with corpus evidence. I enjoyed reading this. I just want to point out that you failed to bear in mind that 'labour' has a 'u' in UK English. If you do your search again using 'slave labour' as your search term, you get completely the opposite result. A better way to get reliable evidence is to search just for slave with part of speech noun and then look at the context list.
You'll see that slave labor has 782 cites to slave labour 787 - a close run contest. Strictly though, if you're just comparing US with GB, the gap is slightly wider with US x 449 and GB x 341, but less convincing than your result. Remember the alternative spelling! ;-) I hope you don't mind me pointing this out and look forward to reading more on your blog.

Reply
09/03/2013 8:46pm

Touché! How did I miss that?! I'm usually more aware of those extra u's in a passive way, as in when I realize a paper has been plagiarized because it suddenly changes to British spelling in only one paragraph or sentence.

I'm glad my intuition still proved *somewhat* trustworthy! :D

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sara
03/27/2014 1:11am

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