Language, Text and Power

Please join us for the next Language, Text and Power seminar talk by Dr Alison Johnson, University of Leeds


“How came you not to cry out?” Representing child rape in the Old Bailey Proceedings 1700-1799.


Thursday 23 January 4-5pm HumSS 301, ALL WELCOME


This study explores the representation of the crime, the accused and the victim in historical rape trials of the 18th century in The Proceedings of the Old Bailey ( The trial accounts provide the sociolinguist with an opportunity to examine society’s attitudes towards the crime, its punishment, and the victim at the time. My research investigates how identities are constructed linguistically in these historical records, particularly through methods of selective reporting of detail. Combining a corpus-based forensic linguistic approach which draws on critical linguistics, a corpus of 153 trials has been collected from the larger online database and categorised in relation to whether the trial is fully or partially reported and whether the victim is an adult or a child. In this paper I focus on 52 trials involving child victims to examine the construction of child victim identities. Using computational tools: WordSmith Tools (Scott 2010) and CFL Lexical Feature Marker (Woolls 2011) to analyse lexical and grammatical features, we see how the euphemistic language employed in the reporting not only constructs the defendant and the crime in benign ways, but analysis also reveals how ideologies and myths about rape were reproduced in the courtroom. Drawing on Reisigl and Wodak’s (2009) ‘discourse-historical framework’ we are able to see how contextual factors such as rape myths of the time work in conjunction with the linguistic construction of identity through trial discourse. Consideration of these ideologies as both a reflection and constitution of society can help to explain the use of euphemistic language, the high proportion of not guilty verdicts and indictments to lesser charges. This research reflects on recent calls in the contemporary context for better victim treatment in general and more witness sensitivity in rape trials in particular.

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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