Tracing historical speech in English: Indiscreet, insulting, and downright disgusting language
Reconstructing the spoken language of the past has been of perennial interest to English historical linguists and scholars of related fields. This pursuit of historical speech has involved negotiating the well-known problem of having recourse to written sources only. Of course, the written language cannot straightforwardly capture the spoken language, and the reconstruction is also – or should also be – concerned with the mechanisms and dynamics of the representation itself. My talk deals with one such set of mechanisms that has received minimal attention: “speech descriptors” (such as “they said hurriedly,” or “he used most disgusting language”). I trace how speech descriptors in combination with the lemma “language” are used for a number of sociopragmatic purposes in the Old Bailey Corpus, which includes legal materials, especially testimony, from 1720 to 1913. I show that descriptors can be used to avoid having to repeat a more specific, and possibly offensive and socially inappropriate utterance; they can be used to put the spotlight on the evaluation and impact of the wording rather than the original speech itself; and they can help users mitigate, deflect, or disprove an accusation or guilt. More generally, I contextualize the study within my own research program and the sociopragmatic study of historical English to argue that studying the speech of the past must necessarily involve investigating the complex choices made by speech reporters in terms of what to represent, what means to use to represent the speech, and how the reporters evaluate the speech (and original speaker).