Leitner – The metadiscourse of verbal offences in 16th-/17th-century Scottish law courts

The FORGE and the Pragmatics & Stylistics Research Group (PaSty) are delighted to announce our second joint external guest speaker of 2015: Dr Magdalena Leitner. Magdalena is a teaching and research assistant at the University of Zurich. Details of her talk are below:

The metadiscourse of verbal offences in 16th-/17th-century Scottish law courts

The way people talk about other people’s communicative behaviour in conflicts offers great insights into notions of offensive language use, in the present and in the past (see Bax and Kádár, 2011: 12, Culpeper, 2011: 71-112). This study reconstructs the metadiscourse of verbal offences in 16th-/17th-century Scottish court records, addressing the following questions: which terms were used in lawsuits to judge verbal offences? What do they reveal about period- and context-specific notions of offensive language use? Court records are valuable sources for investigating historical perceptions of verbal offences because everyday conflicts were recorded as legal evidence (see Kytö et al., 2011: 1).

The present investigation contributes to the growing body of historical metadiscourse studies on impoliteness, verbal aggression and related concepts (Archer, 2014, Bös, 2014, McEnery, 2006). It combines Culpeper’s (2011) perception-based concept of impoliteness with qualitative methods and insights from historical pragmatics. Data were drawn from the records of the central criminal court in Edinburgh and from local Scottish church courts between 1560 and 1660 (see Sources below). The Historical Thesaurus of the OED was consulted as a reference point when categorising the collected terms for verbal offences.

Findings suggest that criminal and ecclesiastical courts had mostly distinct vocabularies for judging verbal offences, but shared major semantic concepts, namely breaches of morals and offences against authorities. Both court types had relatively large inventories of evaluative expressions for offensive language use. However, a small set of apparently standard legal terms was predominant, which corresponds to previous observations concerning the formulaic nature of 16th-century Scottish legal discourse (Graham, 1996: 74, Kopaczyk, 2013, Todd, 2002: 19). Surprisingly, church courts did not show a clear preference for judging verbal offences in religious terms. Distribution patterns of verbal offence terms across different trial stages indicate shifts in communicative purposes from less evaluative recording of facts to the highly evaluative tone of courtroom accusations.

Magdalena Leitner joined the UZH English Department as a Teaching and Research Assistant in October 2014. She completed her PhD on Conflicts in Early Modern Scottish Letters and Law Courts in May 2015. Her doctoral thesis was supervised by Professor Jeremy J. Smith at the University of Glasgow, UK, where she also spent three years before returning to Switzerland. Magdalena holds a Lizenziat degree (i.e. a joint BA & MA) from the University of Zurich in English Linguistics and Literature, Educational Psychology and Film Studies. She wrote her Lizenziatsarbeit (i.e. Masters thesis) on the topic of Thou and You in Late Middle Scottish and Early Modern Northern English Witness Depositions, under the supervision of Professor Dr. Andreas H. Jucker.

W06, 1300-1400, Fri 13th Nov, County South D72