Styling academic Englishes


Prof Dr. Marianne Hundt (University of Zürich) visited our group on the second week of September to do joint research with Elena Seoane, one of our members. Together, they are examining variation in academic Englishes, in particular differences regarding degrees of author involvement as represented in the use of voice alternation. In previous research on the use of be-passives in 15 varieties of academic Englishes (Hundt, Schneider and Seoane, The use of the be-passive in academic Englishes: Local vs global usage in an international language, forthcoming) they found that the distribution of passives as compared to active transitive constructions is very similar in both contact varieties of English (e.g.  English in India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria or Hong Kong), and ENL varieties of English, with only academic American English showing a pronounced tendency towards a more frequent use of actives. A more fine-grained analysis, however, revealed highly significant interdisciplinary variation: whereas in technology and the natural sciences the default option to express a transitive event is the passive voice, in the humanities and social sciences it is consistently the active.

Their objective now is to uncover the functional role of passives in academic writing across varieties of English as a first language, with a view to finding out whether the differences attested between the soft and hard sciences correlate with differences in authorial involvement (We discovered vs This was discovered) or whether, on the contrary, texts are essentially equally impersonal but the soft sciences opt for a more active style (This was discovered vs The experiment discovered this), in tune with ongoing changes in English such as colloquialization and informalization (Leech et al 2009, Farrelly and Seoane 2013). For this purpose, during her stay at the University of Vigo, Hundt and Seoane carried out a quantitative and qualitative analysis of data from the academic sections of 6 tagged and parsed ICE corpora (International Corpus of English), taking into account, among other linguistic features, the (non-)human nature of active subjects, the presence/absence and identity of agent phrases in passive constructions and the use of the different types of first person pronouns (exclusive, inclusive and impersonal we, cf. Seoane forthcoming). In future, they would also like to address differences between published work and unpublished student material regarding authorial involvement, and the syntactic-lexical interface, that is, variation in the lexical verbs used in the different academic writings, which might also help to uncover potential differences among academic Englishes in the use of passive voice.

Prof. Hundt also shared ideas (and meals) with Javier Pérez-Guerra and Yolanda Fernández-Pena. Thanks for coming, Marianne, and see you soon!