Talking Languages
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Talking Languages

The Language of Lockdown

Broad Street is usually mobbed on a sunny day in April. But when Lizzie, a student, passed through it on her way to the station to leave Oxford after submitting her thesis, it was a ghost town.

In late March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson uttered a phrase that made arguably the biggest change to life in the UK since the Second World War:

“You must stay at home”.

Dr Stuart Lee of Oxford’s English Faculty and IT Services realised that, as with the War, future generations would want to understand what life was like during these strange months.

So he acted quickly to assemble a team and start a project called Lockdown2020. His aim was to capture the everyday lives and experiences of staff and students at Oxford University during lockdown.

Working with his research assistant, MSt student Molly Garnett, and Dr Ylva Berglund-Prytz, the team put the call out across Oxford and received 157 submissions to the digital archive between 1st April and 4th July. These included day in the life diary entries, messages for the future, photographs, poems, stories and reflections.

In all, the entries they received exceeded 37,000 words. To find meaning from this large corpus, they used linguistic analysis methodologies to examine the language that recurred throughout the entries. Dr Lee says the project shows that the use of language can be revealing.

“If we only had photos of lockdown experiences, like you have on Instagram, we would not have a record of how people were thinking and feeling at the time,” he says. “But when you get a corpus of words, you can start to analyse the language and pull together patterns by the numbers of different words that are being used.”

Ms Garnett performed an analysis of all the submissions to the archive, which revealed that some of the most common words and phrases were:

‘More’ (23 mentions), ‘new’ (17), ‘discover’ (3), ‘walking’ (20)
Dr Lee says “When you look at what people talked about, a lot of them had more time on their hands and made positive statements about trying new things, doing more exercise and discovering places around them that they didn’t know.”

‘Furloughed’ (5)
Dr Lee says: “Furlough was a new term for those of us in the UK, but we seem to have absorbed it quite quickly.”

‘Online’ (55), ‘Teams’ (34), ‘Zoom’ (23), ‘Zoom running’ (1), ‘Zoom yoga’ (1), ‘Zoom quiz’ (1)
Dr Lee says: “47 of the 157 entries mention online communication for work, study or leisure. Microsoft Teams was the University’s standard communication software so its frequency is expected, and Zoom was more common for leisure activities. This included staging a play, orchestra rehearsals and church services.”

‘Worry/worried’ (25), ‘Anxiety/anxious’ (14), ‘Difficult’ (12)
Dr Lee says: “A third of our entries had some negative feelings associated with lockdown, and a real sense of anxiety, monotony or feeling trapped came through. We got a glimpse into the strains people were under.”

‘Luck’ (17), ‘thank’ (8), ‘appreciate’ (or variations: 15), ‘small things/little things/smaller events’ (7)
Dr Lee says: “Many people seemed appreciative of the small things in life, or discovering things they had not noticed before. The word ‘nature’ also came up a fair bit, and many people had more time to think about things and reflect on their life.”

Oxford undergraduate Roshan Shah had to take his exams at home, but a friend sent him a bottle of Prosecco which arrived in time for the end of his final exam.

‘Miss’ (29): 15 times as part of the construction ‘I miss’, 3 times as ‘miss out’
Dr Lee says: “A lot of students talked about missing Oxford, missing social events, missing friends. I realised that for some of them, they would never come back to Oxford again because this was their last year. Some of the entries showed students imagining what life must be like in Oxford at the moment, or recreating their ‘trashing’ [being covered in confetti and other materials to celebrate finishing exams] in the garden with parents.”

Time passing slowly (13), including ‘aimless daydream’, ‘time has become a near meaningless concept for me’, ‘a lifetime ago’.
Dr Lee says: “Time was discussed a lot. There was a balance between things in the world around them happening so fast, but also everything going slowly. Einstein would have something to say about that! Many people felt like they were in a daydream, that days merged into one and time became irrelevant.

‘Hope’ (14), ‘time’ (20), ‘world’ (22), ‘It’s going to be okay, ‘Nothing is impossible’ and ‘Things change’ (9)
Dr Lee says: “We asked people to write messages to the future, and interestingly the imperative was used a lot as a call to action. ‘Don’t forget, remember, cherish’ etc. These messages were hopeful, urging people to be more appreciative, stop taking things for granted and make the most of life.”

What comes next?

The archive is still open for submissions for the remainder of this (unusual) academic term and welcomes contributions from Oxford staff and students. There is also a student competition with a prize draw of £100 book tokens).

Beyond that, Dr Lee hopes the resource will preserve memories of life under lockdown.

“There are little vignettes of what life is like in the archive, and I am glad people included them because we might forget these odd little things in the future,” he says. “How did you celebrate a birthday? Could you still hug your friends? Did you put money in plastic bags? Did you bleach everything you bought? We have many stories about how people got through this period.”

As well as preserving these experiences for future generations and future scholars studying COVID-19’s impact on society, Dr Lee also hopes the project gives universities an insight into people’s experiences during lockdown which would otherwise have been unreported or unknown.

“The project has contributed to the writing of Oxford’s history, and we hope that similar historical projects in Oxford and the University use the archive in future,” he says.

You can explore the archive here.

The first phase of Lockdown2020 is an English Faculty project and received funding from Phase 1 was funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund and ESRC Impact Acceleration Account through the University of Oxford’s COVID-19: Economic, Social, Cultural, & Environmental Impacts — Urgent Response Fund.

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