Keyness in the language of COVID-19: A short-term diachronic study

The present study aims to describe keyness in the language of COVID-19, i.e. the disease that has caused “the most severe disruption of the global economy since World War II” (Gössling et al. 2020: 1). Specifically, the objective is to explore keyness in a collection of newspaper articles examining the economic effects of COVID-19 in the UK, and to describe its transformation over a short-term period from April 2020 to April 2021.
The novelty of the disease and the lack of extensive research have both rendered linguistic and socio-pragmatic analysis of the language of the pandemic virtually unexplored terrain. Studies conducted to date have been mainly devoted to discourse analysis and have examined topics as address terms and of stance-taking (Tao 2020), Critical Discourse Analysis of pandemic discourse (Kheovichai 2020), metaphorical framings of COVID-19 (Sun 2020; Taylor 2020). However, the language of the pandemic has never been investigated in terms of keywords and considering their transformation as the mirror of the changing society.
The study of Keywords and Wordlists may give relevant information on ‘keyness’ intended as the “aboutness” of discourse (Bondi 2010: 4) which may “characterise individual texts (...) as well as text-types and intellectual areas” (Stubbs 2010: 25; cf. McEnery 2016). At the same time, keyness of a text or discourse emerges from the co-occurrence of words creating “a range of cross-associations” that may be represented as collocation networks (Brezina 2016:90; cf. Brezina et al. 2015) and that may work as powerful indicators of the perception of the COVID-19 and its effects on society: “words and phrases that are key in a text or in a corpus may be shown to be indicative (…) of the discourse community, with its values and beliefs about the subject matter” (Bondi 2010: 7).
The present research is a corpus-based investigation undertaken on The Sun-Economics Corpus (hereafter TSE corpus), a self-compiled corpus including a selection of articles taken from The Sun and The Sun on Sunday. Newspaper articles examining the economic consequences of the outbreak of COVID-19 may be those that mostly reflect the changing collective perception of the danger deriving from this disease. The corpus is composed of two subcorpora, that is Subc-1 (April-May-June 2020); Subc-2 (April-May-June 2021), which allows linguistic analysis on a comparative basis. The data will be retrieved by using #LancsBox v.5.x, a software package developed at Lancaster University which provides many functionalities including Words that compares corpora using the keyword technique and GraphColl which displays collocation networks (
The increase in the perception of the danger deriving from the spread of COVID-19 may be supposed to renew keyness in the language of COVID-19 in consequence of the pressure exerted by societal factors. This could entail that there may be variation in the Keywords within the subcorpora as well as changes in the collocation networks: the evaluation of the economic and social consequences of the lockdown and social distancing is expected to render the keywords conveying unpleasantness more frequent over time.

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See also: Poster