In the British National Corpus 1994, the Spoken texts account for 10% of
the corpus (or about 10 million words). In COCA, we wanted Spoken
more much larger than that, and so about 127 million words (or
about 12.5% of the corpus) comes
from spoken American English.
It would have been impossible, however, to
create a corpus that size by tape recording lectures, conversations, etc
– especially since the corpus was created by
one person, in about 3-4
months, with a budget of approximately $0. The only option was to use
transcripts of conversations, which were already in electronic form.
Therefore, we obtained transcripts of unscripted conversation on
TV and radio programs like All Things Considered (NPR), Newshour (PBS),
Good Morning America (ABC), Today Show (NBC), 60 Minutes
(CBS), Hannity and Colmes (Fox), Jerry Springer
There are several questions,
of course, regarding the use of transcripts like these. Perhaps the
three most important ones are:
1) Do they faithfully represent the
2) Is the conversation really unscripted?
3) How well does it represent "non-media"
varieties of Spoken American English?
Regarding the first question,
we feel confident that the transcripts do represent very well the actual
spoken conversation. WatchTwo examples should suffice. First, look this
video from the Larry King show on CNN (the
Tiger Woods segment) and
compare it to the transcript.
Another example is from the
"Talk of the Nation" show on NPR. Compare the
audio recording (click on "Listen Now") with the
contained in our corpus).
Our sense is that the transcripts do an
excellent job transcribing the conversation, including interruptions,
false starts, and so on.
The second question is whether
the conversation is really unscripted. In the Larry King interview
above, there are a handful of "formulaic / scripted" sentences like
"Welcome to the program", "We'll now go to a commercial break", etc. But
probably 97-98% or more of the conversation is unscripted.
In the NPR
transcript, there is a bit more scripted material -- a paragraph or two
at the beginning of the show, and some announcements for upcoming
commercial breaks. But about 95% or so is still unscripted.
is whether you would rather have a 127 million word spoken corpus with
about 5% scripted material (but still leaving more than 120 million words
of unscripted material), or a "completely pure" corpus that is so small
(1-2 million words) that it is unusable for many types of research. We
opted for the former.
In terms of the third issue (naturalness), there
is one aspect of these
texts that does make them somewhat unlike completely natural
conversation. That is of course the fact that the people knew that they were on a
national TV or radio program, and they therefore probably altered their
speech accordingly -- such as relatively little profanity and perhaps
avoiding highly stigmatized words and phrases like "ain't got none". In
terms of overall word choice and "natural conversation" (false starts,
interruptions, and so on), though, it does seem to represent "off the air"
conversation quite nicely. But no spoken corpus (even those
created by linguists with tape recorders in the early 1990s) will be 100% authentic
for real conversation -- as long as people know that they're being recorded.
Finally, it is possible to do some quick searches that show the
overwhelming "spoken" nature of these texts. The following phrases are
ones that we would expect to occur much more frequently in spoken
(American) English than in other genres like Fiction, Newspapers, or
Academic (but in most cases, not as much as TV/Movies, which are
even more informal). Click on them to see
how common they are in spoken and the other genres:
||Note: click on any link
on this page to see the corpus data, and then
click on the "BACK" image (see left) at the top of the page to come back to
One other note:
In the transcripts
there is text indicating who the speaker is, or codes referring to
"voice-overs" or other notations made by the transcriber. For
SUMMIT It should be a C-note.
ANDERSON That's it. Mr. ANDERSON
Oh, very good. See, you didn't have to get nervous, Mr. Cronick. You
were really very good at it. SUMMIT All
right. Mr. ANDERSON You -- you were
coming fast and furious here. It was great. I could sleep.
( Laughing ) I appreciate it.
We were able
to "separate out" most of these (shown in gray above). Where they have been separated out, they are
not included in the overall word count, nor can they be searched for
(this is on purpose, since they're not "spoken"),
but they do appear in the Keyword in Context displays.