Chapter 2     Statement of the Problem and Overview

 

 

2.1 Introduction

 

The importance of the command of business lexis for business people has been known about for centuries. Daniel Defoe[1] when writing The Complete English Tradesman  in 1726, was quite explicit on the importance of understanding and being able to use the language of business. He wrote:

 

I therefore recommend it to every young tradesman to take all occasions to converse with mechanics of every kind, and to learn the particular language of their business; not the names of their tools only .... but the very cant of their trade, for every trade has its nostrums, and its little made words, which they very often pride themselves in, and which yet are  useful to them on some occasion or other.                                                                                           (Defoe 1726/1987:25-26)

 

His book, though written in a style unfamiliar to the modern reader, is filled with much advice and insight on business that is just as relevant today as when he wrote it. The implication of Defoe’s advice is a clear implicit understanding that there is a language of business that is separate and ‘specific’ from that of general English. This, he points out, has a definite business advantage:

 

If you come to deal with a tradesman or handicraft man, and talk his own language to him, he presently supposes you understand his business; that you know what you have come about; that you have judgement in his goods, or his art, and cannot easily be imposed upon; accordingly, he treats you  like a man that is not to be cheated ....                                                                                (Defoe 1726/1987:26)

 

Yet despite this clear business advantage, and the length of time this has been known, the lexis of business has received little attention, academic or otherwise. The review of the literature that follows this chapter will show that academic work has been done related to several aspects of Business English, but what is missing is an overview of the lexis - a knowledge of what business lexis is and how it typically behaves. Business English teaching is one of the most rapidly growing areas of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) today, yet both teachers and materials writers are operating in the dark: they are teaching Business English when it is not quite known what Business English actually is. This has meant that Business English materials have largely been the result of the intuition and experience of the teachers and materials writers. This work, therefore, stems from a practical desire as a teacher to be more certain that the lexis presented to students as Business English, is, in fact, Business English.

 

2.2 The hypotheses and research questions

 

In order to find out just what Business English lexis is made up of, and to see how Business English has been represented in materials up to now, two main hypotheses were formulated with several research questions attached to them.

 

Hypothesis One: The lexis of Business English is significantly different from that of general English. The main research questions posed were these:

Is there a lexis specific to Business English?

If there is, then what is it made up of?

 

Hypothesis Two: The lexis used in Business English teaching materials is significantly different from the lexis used in real-life business. The main research question asked was:

Can significant lexical differences be found between the language used in published Business English teaching materials and the lexis of business used in real life?

 

2.3 Method

 

It was clear that a clean break from the methods used by materials writers was necessary in order to test these hypotheses. Materials writers have used their assumptions and beliefs regarding business lexis in order to create texts and exercises: the flow has thus been from person to text. In order to get an accurate picture of business lexis, the flow should be in exactly the opposite direction: one should, therefore, create a large body of texts of Business English and then make observations on what is found there. The resulting methodology is unavoidably quantitative and the use of corpus linguistic methodology becomes central to the research. This theme of intuition versus empirical data is the first major theme that recurs throughout the thesis.

 

The first stage of the analysis was the creation, therefore, of two corpora that would be able to adequately test the two hypotheses. For the creation of the PMC, 33 books were scanned into the computer to form a corpus of texts of just under 600,000 running words. The BEC was formed from both written and spoken texts gathered from across the UK and its final size came to just over 1 million running words. Additionally, a corpus of general English was chosen in order to act as a linguistic reference point. The corpus chosen was the British National Corpus (BNC) Sampler corpus of approximately 2 million words. This corpus is split 50-50 between spoken and written texts and is representative of general English. Once the corpora were in place, a system of analysis was needed. It is very difficult to analyse a million-word corpus, so criteria were needed by which the language analysed would be both representative of the corpora and at the same time manageable.

 

The focus of much corpus-based work, has in the past, centred around the concept of frequency, i.e. the most frequent words used are in essence the most important (Murison-Bowie 1996). Previous studies that have tried to relate corpus findings to the classroom have used frequency as the basis of lexical choice for materials, notably in the COBUILD project reported in Willis (1990). Early work in the field of register analysis, however, found that very little specialist language was frequent, and that a frequency analysis of scientific text, for example, looked much the same as that of general English (Coffey 1984). Whilst frequency data is regarded in this thesis as valid, rather than pure frequency, the concept of unusual and significant frequency has been used. The WordSmith Tools 3 computer program of Scott (1999) was used in order to compute the key words from both the BEC and the PMC. WordSmith statistically compares a smaller corpus to a larger, reference corpus and computes key words - that is words which appear in the smaller corpus more often, or less, than could be expected based on the evidence of the larger, reference corpus. The resulting key word lists present lexis, therefore, that is special to a given corpus. In this thesis, the BEC and the PMC were each in turn compared both to the BNC corpus of general English, and additionally, to each other. By analysing the key word lists computed - just under 2,000 words for each corpus - a lexical picture of the world of Business English, both real and in materials, could be gained.

 

Once a lexical base for analysis had been established through the key words, more detailed analysis could be carried out. Here, the second major theme of the work - a need for both macro- and micro-level knowledge - is stressed. The key words gave an overall semantic picture of the lexis of Business English. However, a further, more detailed analysis was needed in order to see how this key lexis behaves in the business environment. For this, two main analytical approaches were chosen: semantic prosody and colligation. Semantic prosody, first defined by Louw (1993), though originally an idea of Sinclair’s (1991), refers to the phenomenon that words, as well as having typical collocates, e.g. vested and interest, collocate regularly with semantic classes of words comprised of groups of collocates. Earlier work on semantic prosody (Sinclair 1991, Louw 1993) discussed the fact that some words relate to distinctly negative states, e.g. commit and crime, a foul, an error, etc. whilst other words associate with very positive semantic groups, e.g. provide often collocates with positive states. Later work (Stubbs 1995, Tribble 1998, Hoey 1997, 2000) has noted that words can associate with semantic sets; for example the word package collocates with a group of words related to size. Colligation - the way in which words typically behave grammatically - is also studied here. Thus, just as words have typical collocates, they can also appear in typical grammatical patternings (Firth 1957, Stubbs 1993, Hoey 2000, Hargreaves 2000).

 

The key word analysis gave a broad view over business-related lexis. By looking at semantic prosody and colligation, a detailed picture of how words behave in Business English was obtained. But looking at both lexical and grammatical aspects of lexis also raised methodological issues.

 

2.4  Methodological overview

 

Inherent in the methods described above are certain methodological aspects that should be stated clearly at this stage:

 

·    The view of language taken in this research focuses on the idiom principle of Sinclair (1987, 1991) which sees language as being made up of prefabricated blocks of words for users to choose from. The importance of collocation is, therefore, at the heart of this thesis.

·    Lexis and grammar are seen as an interdependent whole that cannot, and should not, be separated from each other.

·    Chomskyan notions of rationalist linguistic analysis that rely on intuition for the generation of data is rejected. Intuition is still needed, but it is needed in the interpretation of quantitative data, not the creation of it.

·    The methodology used stresses the need for using actual authentic data and takes ‘whole text’ as the starting point of lexical analysis. This approach falls into the area of correlative register analysis, accepting the Firthian principle that language is varied and heterogenous.

 

2.5 Aims of the research

 

This research, in short, does the following:

 

1. It specifies the differences found between Business English lexis and the lexis of general English at a variety of levels.

2. It specifies how the lexis of published Business English teaching materials differs from that found in real business life.

3. It explores and describes central aspects of Business English lexis providing a firm base for future materials writers to work from.

 

This last point cannot be over-emphasised. Research of this kind must have immediate application in the classroom. In creating an electronic corpus of Business English and by investigating business lexis at several levels, this thesis aims to have all its findings transferred, via new materials, to the Business English language classroom. 

 

In order to facilitate the reading of this work, an overview of what is found in each chapter is presented below.

 

2.6 Overview of the thesis

 

Following on from this introductory chapter, the literature of Business English is reviewed in Chapter 3. It will be seen that, although some work has been done in the field, it is still considerably less than in other ESP areas such as English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Science and Technology (EST). It will show that studies of the lexis of business are very limited and that only one major writer in the field can be found.  The late Douglas Pickett, in a small but important output of articles in the late 1980s, provides almost the only original thought on the nature and formation of business lexis. His ideas will, therefore, be considered in detail and will be incorporated into the analysis discussed in Chapter 9. The review of the literature continues with work done in register, discourse and genre analysis both in and outside the Business English area. It also looks at studies carried out with regard to published materials and shows how other authors have evaluated their efficacy.

 

Chapter 4 is formed from an overview of lexis, collocation, semantic prosody and colligation. It follows thought on lexis from the 19th century to the present day and takes in the work of Firth, Sinclair, Halliday and Stubbs. The idiom principle of Sinclair is discussed along with the importance of collocation and multi-word items (MWIs) in language formation and understanding.

 

Chapter 5 presents the methodological background to the thesis, taking advantage of Stubbs’ (1993, 1996) work on the British traditions of text analysis. This is followed by a brief history of the use and creation of corpora, leading to a justification of the use of corpus linguistic techniques in the thesis.

 

Chapter 6 is used to present the two corpora created, the BEC and the PMC. Issues of sampling, representativeness and balance are discussed, and the ways in which the data was collected and entered into the computer are described.

 

Chapter 7 sets out the hypotheses, the research questions and the methods used for analysis, and Chapter 8 gives an overview of the results, noting where the full results can be found - either directly in appendices, or on the CD ROM accompanying the thesis.

 

Chapter 9 is perhaps the most important of the thesis. It discusses the results of the analysis in detail and shows how the world of Business English lexis differs from general English, how the lexis of published materials differs from real-life business lexis and also describes the main lexico-semantic groups found in the business setting. It concludes by discussing the pedagogical implications of the findings made.

 

Chapter 10 concludes the thesis by providing a summary of the findings.

 

2.7 Concrete problems - concrete answers

 

Business English teachers and writers of materials face several concrete problems in their work. This thesis addresses, perhaps, the most important of all of them: the need to know just what Business English is. It is only by identifying the lexis that is key to Business English, and making use of it in the classroom, that teachers can give students access to the language that is vital for their work, and often their careers.

 



[1] My thanks to Richard West for first bringing this book to my attention.