239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

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239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Jun 17, 2014 11:09 am

Today's New York Times carries an article reporting on a study that makes use of a massive digitized archive of British court reports:
From 1674 through 1913, court reporters wrote detailed accounts of virtually every trial held at the Central Criminal Court, known as the Old Bailey, where all major criminal cases for Greater London were heard.

[...]

The corpus includes 121 million words describing 197,000 trials over 239 years. According to researchers, it represents the largest existing body of transcribed trial evidence for historical crime; it is, they say, the most detailed recording of real speech in printed form anywhere in the world.

Scientists have now carried out a computational analysis of those words showing how the British justice system created new practices for controlling violence. The study, “The Civilizing Process in London’s Old Bailey,” in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is a collaboration between two computer scientists, Simon DeDeo of Indiana University and Sara Klingenstein of the Santa Fe Institute, and a historian, Tim Hitchcock of the University of Sussex in England.

This study demonstrates “an important new way to do historical research,” said Brett Bobley, director of digital humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Historians may study collections of individual items — books, old letters or newspapers — but they can’t read an entire library; computers, he said, can do just that.

[...]

The Old Bailey archive was digitized a decade ago into a free and searchable database (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org) in which every defendant’s name is tagged by gender, crime, location, the victim’s name and address, verdict, and any punishment.

[...]

To find patterns, the scientists looked at when and how often certain words occurred.

“Say you walk into a trial in 1750 and pick out one word,” Dr. DeDeo said. “How much can you learn about what the trial is about? If you hear the word ‘kick,’ you might associate it with violence, but you could not be certain.

“But by 1850, if you hear the word ‘kick,’ you would know a lot about what the bureaucracy was going to do,” he continued. “With the passage of time, each word carries more information based on accumulating trial data. And this is what we can quantify.”

To simplify their task, the researchers turned to the 1911 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, which sorts 26,000 distinct English words into 1,040 numbered categories called synonym sets. For example, words involving love and affection are in the high 800s, money and wealth in the low 800s. “Kick,” as in striking a blow, is No. 276, while killing is No. 361.

“The beauty of this,” Dr. DeDeo said, “is that for every word we have a number that equates with a meaning” that can be modeled mathematically.

One key finding is the gradual criminalization of violence.

In the early 1700s, violence was considered routine. A trial about theft, Dr. DeDeo said, might include testimony “in which people gouge out each other’s eyes, are covered in blood and get killed.” But by the 1820s, the justice system was focused more on containing violence — a development reflected not just in language but also in the professionalization of the justice system. “The changes occurred under the radar,” said Dr. Hitchcock, the British historian.

One such change revealed by the study is that trial records became medicalized. In the mid-19th century, doctors start showing up in large numbers to give evidence and evaluate causes of death.

Over time, the transcripts have more superlatives and intensifiers — words like “very,” “so much,” “most” — in reference to acts of violence. Exaggeration is normal in a courtroom, but violence brings out more hyperbole; if someone steals your wallet, you are upset, but if someone beats you up, you are likely to use stronger language.

The Old Bailey transcripts ended in 1913 as publication costs grew prohibitive and newspapers took over the role of covering trials.
While the corpus of Old Bailey transcripts is obviously an invaluable resource for criminologists and historians of the English criminal justice system, it occurs to me that because it records spoken rather than written speech -- and does so for a period that spans nearly 250 years -- it must stand unique as an evolving record of the differences between written and contemporaneous spoken English.

The NYT article does not address the potential use of the corpus for investigating these relationships. But in such a comprehensive trove of data there must be decades' worth of illuminating linguistic data mining and analysis to be had -- moreover, it is one that presumably encompasses the full range of human behaviour, occupation, industry and socioeconomic status, which potentially enables the painting of a very subtle picture of the history of the spoken language.
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Jun 18, 2014 4:31 am

.. Erik it will allow research to establish that spoken usage precedes written usage and that many words/phrases were in common use, sometimes for decades, before some "famous" writer is credited with "inventing" the word/phrase .. so often it is the common man who is the inventor of language rather than some single author .. language evolves in response to social situations .. to a need .. not spontaneously from the creative juice of a flash of inspiration ..

.. linguistic geeks should be lining up to get their hands on the corpus ..

WoZ who knew Rumpole
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Jun 18, 2014 10:48 am

Wizard of Oz wrote:language evolves in response to social situations .. to a need .. not spontaneously from the creative juice of a flash of inspiration
Depends on the breadth of your focus. In terms of its overall development, I'm sure you're right about language evolving in response to general social (and -- I would add -- scientifically- and technologically-bounded) situations; however, the history of written literature is also the history of numerous linguistic and other intellectual innovations brought into existence by specific individuals. In actuality, they are parallel processes that feed off each other.

We should also remember that 'the common man' is only referred to that way because we don't know exactly who to credit with a particular idea. Few individuals actually regard themselves as being just another 'common man' or some sort of insignificant particle floating in an ocean of other insignificant particles. 'The common man' is a term of convenience, not a real phenomenon.
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Jun 25, 2014 2:52 am

.. there is an opportunity here to delve once again into people on Bondi, or Clapham, buses .. but I didn't buy a ticket ..

WoZ catching a taxi
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Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by tony h » Mon Jun 30, 2014 12:28 am

I searched for the Mother in Law's name - I wasn't surprised by what I found. But I was surprised by how often I appear on both sides of the court.
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With the right context almost anything can sound appropriate.

Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Jun 30, 2014 11:12 am

That's also what your mother-in-law said.
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Phil White » Mon Jun 30, 2014 5:51 pm

Erik_Kowal wrote:We should also remember that 'the common man' is only referred to that way because we don't know exactly who to credit with a particular idea. Few individuals actually regard themselves as being just another 'common man' or some sort of insignificant particle floating in an ocean of other insignificant particles. 'The common man' is a term of convenience, not a real phenomenon.
On the contrary. She is a very real phenomenon. She and her comrades make up the millions who do not share the purported benefits enjoyed by a privileged elite. It matters not whether the privilege derives from inherited wealth, education, particular physical or intellectual prowess, fortunate circumstances or anything else. She is a representative of those whom the privileged can look upon with pity or curiosity, despise and disparage, or even hold up as shining examples of fortitude.


Among the elite circles of the wealthy (among whom I do not number myself, although, from a global perspective, I most certainly should), the "common man" comprises those who have little wealth.

Among the elite circles of theoretical physicists, the common man comprises those who have at most a rudimentary understanding of the scientific study of natural laws.

And among the elite circle of "educated speakers" (among whom I must needs number myself), the common man comprises those who, whether by choice or necessity, speak in a manner that does not conform to an arbitrary code accepted by that elite.

The "common man" is a very real and divisive phenomenon,, equally as divisive as the gaping rift between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed.

And I am strongly inclined to believe that you are wrong in your assumption that people do not regard themselves as largely insignificant "in the grand scheme of things". Life would be pretty unbearable in the light of the impact I have had on the course of human history were I to believe that my life had any significance whatsoever.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to belong to one elite while being excluded from another. And each elite brings forth its own, uniquely defined, but genuinely existent "common man".


While a very small amount of language may possibly have trickled down from the elite, and it is moot whether it was they who coined that language or were merely the first to pen it, the vast bulk of language change, whether it be structural or lexical, is widely adopted across a broad range of speakers long before it becomes acceptable to the "educated speaker" elite. The fact that we attribute, for instance, a particular coinage to a historical member of the elite where, in many cases, it is highly likely that the very first usage was by an unknown representative of the "common man" merely underscores the existence and divisive power of the phenomenon.
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Wizard of Oz » Tue Jul 01, 2014 6:18 am

.. hear hear Phil .. well spoken .. very eloquent ..

WoZ a very common man
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Jul 01, 2014 6:33 am

Phil White wrote:While a very small amount of language may possibly have trickled down from the elite, and it is moot whether it was they who coined that language or were merely the first to pen it, the vast bulk of language change, whether it be structural or lexical, is widely adopted across a broad range of speakers long before it becomes acceptable to the "educated speaker" elite. The fact that we attribute, for instance, a particular coinage to a historical member of the elite where, in many cases, it is highly likely that the very first usage was by an unknown representative of the "common man" merely underscores the existence and divisive power of the phenomenon.
I think you are imposing a rather perverse reading on my comments.

I'm not arguing that there does not exist, or has not existed, a socially, culturally, politically or economically privileged elite (or elites). Of course such elites have always existed (and seem likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future). There will always be people who possess more physical or intellectual ability, power, social connections, or access to various types of resource than others; only a fool would try to deny it. The way we interpret the significance of this is the stuff of history, economics, moral philosophy and political science. But I don't see the point of trying to force the attribution of linguistic innovations and coinages into being viewed solely, or primarily, through this particular lens. My dismissal of the 'common man' phenomenon was made purely in relation to his existence as a linguistic innovator; I am not trying to claim that social unfairness or inequality does not exist or has not existed, and therefore that there is no exploitation of others by people who occupy privileged positions in society.

The basic point I was making (or attempting to make) was that in many cases there is no historical record of the identity of the original coiner, borrower or adapter of a given word, but that even when its originator is not known, somebody must have been the very first to use it or popularize it. Was it a peasant or a lord of the manor? Who is to say? No 11th-century innkeeper's tape recordings or gravedigger's memoirs have yet emerged from the archaeological or bibliographic record that would enable us to construct a more detailed picture. But in either case, the linguistic innovator was not simply "a representative of the 'common man' " to friends, family or colleagues, even if they themselves did not belong to some elite class or other.

Today, with the widespread evolution of (at least nominally) democratic governance, consumerism, social media and the sense of empowerment or entitlement to have a say in things that the average person consequently feels -- however illusory you might regard that sense of empowerment as being -- the propensity for those who do not view themselves as belonging to an elite to think that they are merely unimportant or insignificant particles purely by virtue of that fact is probably less than it ever has been, notwithstanding your stated assessment of your own significance / lack thereof. (They may -- often rightly -- feel that their interests are being ignored by those who occupy positions of power, but that's a rather different issue.)

At the same time, the data archive that is being added to every day from the trail of electronic breadcrumbs that many of us are leaving behind is making it a lot easier to attribute today's verbal coinages to individuals, or at least to particular milieus.

Meanwhile, it seems to me that you are using the question of who gets the credit for a coinage to make a broader statement bemoaning the disproportionate influence of elites. But though they may be somewhat associated, they are not identical phenomena and ought not to be conflated.

For instance, your remark that "we attribute, for instance, a particular coinage to a historical member of the elite where, in many cases, it is highly likely that the very first usage was by an unknown representative of the 'common man' " is, in most cases, impossible to prove unless new evidence comes to light, and is therefore purely speculative.

But at the same time, I don't think it is unreasonable for me to assert that we do know, with reasonable certainty, which individuals have named various natural phenomena, scientific concepts or technological inventions, and that they did not merely appropriate some unknown person's coinages as their own. These individuals are (or were), almost by definition leaders in their particular fields, and must accordingly be regarded as members of an intellectual elite, whether or not they also belong(ed) to some other elite. So these are not 'common men' in that sense -- though many of them actually emerged from quite ordinary and/or impoverished origins.
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Phil White » Tue Jul 01, 2014 4:13 pm

Yes, you are absolutely right, I apologise unreservedly. I do tend to get ideas above my station.

Seriously, nobody in their right mind would attempt to deny that a large number of words and concepts come into the language as the result of developing technology and academic advances, and that such coinages come from within the academic world in which the innovations arise. But there are relatively few that ever leave the world of jargon. Of course, "relatively few" of a "large number" can still be a significant number. But these are surely not what we are talking about. Nobody is unduly concerned about the arrival of the word "cellphone" or "tablet". Having said that, when the great unwashed get hold of these words, they often have the effrontery to ignore or modify them (cellphone -> cell, send a text message -> text).

But it is not such coinages that indicate the fracture points between the different perceptions of correctness in a language. They do not significantly change the nature of the language. They merely add to the stock of wors/concept pairs available in the language. Far more commonly, it is usage that reveals the rift between those who travel in omnibuses and those who do not.

Who was it that first started saying "sooner than later" in preference to "sooner rather than later"? Who first started using "mitigate against" in place of "militate against"? Who decided that it is fine to use a plural pronoun with a singular referent ("when a user first logs on, they must...")? It is things such as these that drive the language forwards, and not the arrival of coinages for new products, technologies and phenomena, which merely fatten dictionaries.

But there are other coinages that do shape the language. Often these are coinages for everyday experiences. Who was the first to use "wicked" (or, more accurately, "wikkid") to mean "fantastic" (or, indeed, "fantastic" to mean "great", or, indeed, "great" to mean ...)?

Since when have we been able to drop relative pronouns ("the man (whom) I talked to") or subordinating conjunctions ("I thought (that) he was dead"), and who first started doing it?

Who first insolently dangled their participles in full view of the shocked literati?

Who first "spent a penny"? Or indeed used the "loo"?

These are the types of things that drive language, and if we find them attributed to anyone at all - which will only happen after the self-appointed guardians of the language have had no choice but to accept their existence, they are attributed to those among the great and good who were the first to put them on printed record.

Yes, of course things are changing with the increased availability of printed and recorded material from a broader section of society. Yes, of course, meagre written records are all we have from the 14th century or whenever. But it is far too easy to assume that language is driven by the inspired genius of a few great minds merely because the first written record of a language phenomenon appears in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens or whatever. Indeed, bearing in mind the percentage of all language ever produced in the Elizabethan period represented by the total amount of language contained in the works of Shakespeare, for instance, it is highly likely that he was often just making use of existing language material that we are simply unaware of (ed. and yes, this is unashamedly speculative, but I believe the assumption to be more tenable than the accepted wisdom that all previously unrecorded usages found in Shakespeare were necessarily coinages on his part). This is not to call into question the genius and talent of the great writers whose works have survived for us, nor to claim that they coined nothing, nor to deny the huge influence some have had on the language as a result of the popularity of their works. But it is an attempt to put the focus back on the huge creative reservoir that drives the turbines of language change, namely, the common, uncelebrated folks that use, play with, mangle and straighten out a language day by day to communicate efficiently and effectively.
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Jul 02, 2014 4:39 am

.. Erik it was not until your last but one paragraph ..
For instance, your remark that "we attribute, for instance, a particular coinage to a historical member of the elite where, in many cases, it is highly likely that the very first usage was by an unknown representative of the 'common man' " is, in most cases, impossible to prove unless new evidence comes to light, and is therefore purely speculative.
.. that you finally returned to my original statement >>
.. it ((Old Bailey court transcripts)) will allow research to establish that spoken usage precedes written usage and that many words/phrases were in common use, sometimes for decades, before some "famous" writer is credited with "inventing" the word/phrase ..
.. where I feel I rightly identified these transcripts as being exactly what you have referred to as new evidence ..

.. I suppose it is the same as Presidents, Prime Ministers and the like being credited with great wisdom in this speech or that when we all are aware that they employ a team of speech writers and, particularly in more modern times, every word they utter in a public forum speech is stage managed and cleared before going out to the public .. so who really came up with I had a dream, or .. what you can do for your country. or We will fight them on the beaches .... etc etc ?? .. somewhere someone proudly tells their grandkids, "I wrote that." ..

.. this position is not new for me in these forums as I have consistently espoused this idea for years and been poo-pooed for years .. and no I can't be bothered researching my earlier posts in the WW archives ..

WoZ feeling vindicated
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Jul 02, 2014 4:55 am

WoZ, I can't escape the impression that you are absolutely determined to belong to a supposedly hard-done-by single-member band of contrarians, even though I'm actually supporting your basic position. The whole point of my original posting was to draw attention to this trove of recently-available evidence; in the final two paragraphs of my posting, I explicitly pointed out its value for linguistic researchers as a historical tool for comparing otherwise unrecorded spoken English with the contemporaneous written language.

Meanwhile:
Wizard of Oz wrote:.. I suppose it is the same as Presidents, Prime Ministers and the like being credited with great wisdom in this speech or that when we all are aware that they employ a team of speech writers and, particularly in more modern times, every word they utter in a public forum speech is stage managed and cleared before going out to the public .. so who really came up with I had a dream, or .. what you can do for your country. or We will fight them on the beaches .... etc etc ?? .. somewhere someone proudly tells their grandkids, "I wrote that." ..
It's not clear to me what point you are trying to make here. Is it that people are wrongly attributing famous speeches to those who delivered them rather than to their speechwriters? If so, their mistake is due to their own sloppiness, since the identity of the speechwriters of American presidents is a matter of public record; Churchill wrote most of his own speeches, and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech was written by King, working with two others. None of this is a closely guarded secret, or otherwise difficult to find out.

Or perhaps you are just complaining about the use of speechwriters by public figures; but if so, why?

To be effective, a speech -- especially a political speech -- needs to be carefully put together by people who know what they're doing. This is particularly so today, when speeches delivered by prominent figures are not only instantly recorded by anyone who is present with a cellphone, but uploaded to YouTube and then dissected, parsed and often lampooned by all and sundry who have some kind of stake or agenda regarding what is being said. (We all know how things can go wrong for politicians when they go off-script -- think, for instance, of the backlash following Mitt Romney's infamous "47 per cent" speech.) I don't think you can blame public figures, especially those who carry a lot of responsibility, for trying to avoid getting into trouble as a result of careless speechmaking. Then there's the question of how much time writing speeches would take out of a busy person's schedule if they were all self-composed, especially if they delivered many speeches...

.. Erik brushing WoZ's chips off his shoulders ..
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Re: 239 years of Old Bailey court transcripts freely available online

Post by Wizard of Oz » Mon Jul 07, 2014 9:41 am

.. no chips Erik .. must be failing in my dotage at being able to express myself correctly .. my reference to speeches was given as another example of words, in this case groups of words, being attributed to the wrong person, in these cases to the "famous" person .. look at any quotes compilation and see whose name appears at the bottom .. show me one example where it says Written by x, y and z speech writers and spoken by A .. doesn't happen .. that's all .. no big one .. just my simple observation based on my minimal experience in my tiny world and directed my insignificant university training ..

WoZ thinking above his station
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Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

End of topic.
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