Digital History seminar
21 February 2012
Magnus Huber (Giessen)
The Old Bailey Corpus: Spoken English in the 18th and 19th Centuries
 

The Old Bailey Proceedings Online is a heavily used resource by historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who want to look at social and cultural history, particularly of the ordinary people.   The ‘from below’ perspective that the proceedings can provide especially due to its mark-up online has truly moved the discussion forward.  However, as the project was originally underway at least one person saw another possibility for the resource. 

Magnus Huber is an historical-linguist and he viewed the Old Bailey corpus as a largely untapped resource for rediscovering spoken English in a period before audio or visual recordings.  Huber has analysed the texts for long variations and change in spoken English as expressed in the court trials.  He has asked and attempted to answer how accurate such a study can be.  Does the written record accurately record spoken English?  Even where the scribe has noted down direct speech, can we be sure that this is correct?  What about the problem of summarising or changes in word-forms such as “can’t” rather than “cannot”?  From an historians point of view some of this is not important to gaining an historical sense of what the resource is telling us.  However, from a linguists point of view there are important differences and the records cannot entirely be trusted to tell us everything that we would like to be able to assume.  A lack of internal consistency in the text is a problem and even comparing to other parallel documents cannot necessarily tell us the entire story. 

Nevertheless, Huber’s study of the Old Bailey records has enabled him to reconstruct much more than would otherwise be possible.  The quantity of material of the same form over a lengthy period of time that the Old Bailey records provide is a gold mine of information.  Now marked-up with the latest digital technology and using digital tools to analyse and ‘mine’ the evidence, the Old Bailey proceedings are continuing to provide almost endless possibilities for research.  

 To listen or watch this podcast click here.

Please follow and like us: