Natalie and Moira presenting their paper

Exploring the emotive language of Burns: Collaborative Research by College of Arts PhD students

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In November 2018, third-year PhD students Natalie Finlayson (English Language and Linguistics / Translation Studies) and  Moira Hansen (Scottish Literature) were awarded Research Support Award funding to attend the annual Société Française d’Études Écossaises (French Society of Scottish Studies/SFEE) conference in Tours. They presented their collaborative work on the use of digital tools to explore the impact of mood disorder on the emotive language of Robert Burns.

Natalie reflects on the experience of working with a fellow student to create a new project from two distinct areas of PhD research, and the differences in conference culture she observed from participation in a French-speaking event.


Collaboration on the project

Moira and I have a history of working collaboratively on conference material, having contributed to the organisation of the 2016 Postgraduate Arts conference in our first year. At the time, we found this to be an interesting and fulfilling experience, but did not anticipate the close and supportive friendship that would develop as a result, and continue throughout our PhD study. As our respective projects began to take shape, and we grew more confident in our understanding of material and mastery of research tools, we came to observe elements of overlap in the research ideas that we had always considered quite to be quite distinct from one another.

Moira had been examining physical and mental health in the life and work of Robert Burns using primarily intuitive methods of literary study, while my own work on the computational analysis of learner- and translated language took a more systematic approach. Conversations over coffee revealed that Moira was interested in expanding her work by looking more closely at Burns’s emotive language choices, but was unsure of the best angle to take, given the volume of poems, letters and songs available to her. Corpus linguistics, a branch of computational linguistics which uses digital tools to quickly and accurately retrieve examples of language use from databases of text, has been developed with precisely the aim of facilitating the identification of trends in large quantities of data. When Moira mentioned to me that much of Burns’ work already exists in digital form, we explored the idea of treating this material as a corpus, and adapting the methodologies I have been using in my own study to analyse it.

Nature-related language in Burns’ works

Moira had a hunch that nature-related language would feature heavily in Burns’ portrayal of his moods, given his rural, agricultural upbringing. To explore this further, we first consulted the Metaphor Map of English to determine which thematic areas might yield examples of words used figuratively to express emotions. Next, having identified wind and seasons as likely contenders, we used the Historical Thesaurus of English to retrieve lists of associated vocabulary in use during Burns’s active period. We employed computational methods to locate and analyse examples of this language in Burns’ works, and presented the results of this pilot study at the annual Corpus Linguistics in Scotland meeting at the end of 2017. Encouraged by positive reactions to our work, we expanded our project to include water-related references, and were delighted to have an abstract accepted at the SFEE event, the theme of which was l’eau (water).

A photo of Moira and Natalie's lanyards on a table at the conference

The conference

I was excited to be attending my first bilingual conference, and interested to see how this would compare to my experience of presenting at UK-based events. As Moira and I were two of only a handful of Scots present among the 40 or so delegates, we were very much in the minority, and most of the papers were delivered in French. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my grasp of academic French was sufficient to allow me to participate meaningfully in discussion, and it was truly fascinating to hear my country talked about so passionately from a French-speaking perspective. Moira too delighted in the opportunity to put her high school French to good use! Our efforts to contribute in the language were appreciated, and we felt very warmly welcomed.

In terms of practicalities, I found the most striking difference in conference culture to lie in the set-up of proceedings. Panels of presenters were seated facing the audience at tables equipped with microphones, and it was expected that papers be presented sitting down.

In some ways, this arrangement suited me quite well – I have a tendency to fidget a lot while presenting, so the chance to remain seated, and hide my tapping feet under the table, likely gave me a calmer overall appearance! On the other hand, I felt the presence of a physical barrier between speakers and listeners gave the presenting experience a slightly more didactic feel – previously, my experience of conference participation had very much as a contribution to wider, collaborative discussion, whereas this felt as little more like delivery of information. Nevertheless, enthusiastic questions suggested that delegates were interested and eager to learn from us, and I would add that anyone thinking of presenting at French-speaking conference should be prepared for a level of directness and intensity in both comments and praise which we, as Scots, found a little overwhelming!

Cheese, salad, meats laid out on a table

Finally, a note on the social element – perhaps unsurprisingly, French organising committees know the value of conference cuisine! The conference lunch was exquisite – an array of local wines and delicacies from the Tours region, and a presentation style from which I feel we could learn! The conference dinner, too, was a delight – I can’t imagine I’ll ever be seeing out a British conference with a Franco-Scottish singalong!

What I’ve learned

In addition to having been a lot of fun, and detracting from the nervousness that can result from the pressure of presenting something you have worked on by yourself, my main takeaway from this experience has been a renewed appreciation of the benefits of collaborative work for my personal development as a researcher. Pooling resources to create a new project can help both parties recognise the wider impact of what they are doing, which is an extremely rewarding feeling! In addition, I found there to be great value in teaching Moira about my methodology for enhancing my own understanding of it, and I feel far more confident talking to others about my research as a result.

What’s next?

We are currently in the process of further disseminating the results of our project by presenting these in poster form, and drafting a joint article with a view to publication. Longer term, Moira plans to expand the Burns corpus by including material which does not yet exist in digital form. This project idea has already attracted international attention, with researchers at the University of South Carolina, home to the biggest holding of Burns-related material outside Scotland expressing interest in wider-scale collaborative work. Finally, we are looking forward to returning to France to participate in next year’s SFEE conference in Valence – with nourriture et boissons en Écosse (food and drink in Scotland) as the theme, this promises much food for thought as well as our stomachs, and Moira is already taking French lessons in preparation!


Natalie is a final year PhD student working on corpus-cognitive approaches to second language vocabulary learning/teaching and translation. She tutors for University of Glasgow Short Courses and German Language for International Mobility, and holds a Graduate Teaching Assistant post in French.

Find Natalie and Moira on Twitter : @natalie_eloise (Natalie); @moiraehansen (Moira); @bluedevilism (the project)

Post Author: Kelly Arnstein

Kelly is Digital Content Officer for the College of Arts.

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