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Centre for Translating Cultures

Oppositions in the narrative accounts of migrants in the UK during Covid-19

Wednesday, March 20, 2024, 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM, Queen's 1C

Speaker: Prof Roberta Piazza (University of Sussex), Chair: Prof Francesco Goglia (University of Exeter)

Individuals who for various reasons, migrated to a foreign country often appear as suspended between two (or more) different realities as the signs of their previous life are faded or disguised, while those of the new life have not yet become visible. This liminal suspension before a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, a ‘there’ and ‘here’ often materialises in the language of their migration experience. The study tests this hypothesis by investigating a half a million word-corpus of over 40 interviews with migrants from a variety of countries around the world who were the recipients of a UK government assistance scheme during the Covid-19 crisis.

Supported by an ESRC/UKRI fund from the University of Portsmouth, with the University of Sussex and the charity St Mungo’s, the study draws on the philosophical and cognitive literature on polarity (Plato, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Greimas) to modern discourse and semantic investigations. Through a corpus assisted approach, in the interviewees’ narrative accounts, we trace the binary oppositions reflecting their cognitive processes at a variety of micro and macro levels: semantic and syntactic, lexical, thematic, ideological on a spatial-temporal and cognitive axis.

And I fled my country because of what is happening, and I came here to witness something like this again. My life in Romania before I came here was good. So, I don't want that to happen here or there. Anyway if I stayed there, they would have killed me if they had gone on with the medication to remove that.

We show how through such binary construction, the migrants’ lives appear as located along a gradient, shaped by comparisons and juxtapositions and shaping a linguistic and conceptual reflection on their experience.