The stories behind the eye witness accounts of one of the bloodiest episodes in Ireland’s history have been brought to life through a major research project employing new technology and advanced techniques in forensic linguistics.
Researchers from the University of Aberdeen have spent the last 12 months investigating the 1641 Depositions - witness testimonies, mainly by Protestants but also by some Catholics, describing their experience of the 1641 Rebellion — one of the most violent chapters of Irish history.
They will reveal their findings at a major conference in Aberdeen today (Friday February 18) and tomorrow (Saturday February 19) which will bring together experts in language and linguistics, history, computer science, computational linguistics, geographic information systems, politics and religion.
The team had unprecedented access to IBM’s LanguageWare© technology research team in its Dublin Software Lab and developed a unique suite of software solutions including a program called Wordsmith to analyse the Depositions and to cross-correlate an array of features of the text — a process which would be too complicated and potentially take a lifetime for a scholar to undertake manually.
Their painstaking work, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, has provided new insights into the accounts and has led to the creation of a new research environment for linguists and other scholars and lay people wishing to work on the Depositions.
One of the linguistic studies in the project engages with previous examination of the Depositions, which led to the view that women and children were constructed as the primary victims of the rebellion - feeding into the popular conception of the rebels as barbaric and alien in British propaganda texts – and careful forensic examination of the language used reveals exactly how such propaganda was constructed.
The detailed examination of the testimonies facilitated by new technology has also enabled researchers to question the nature of the Depositions as evidence, pinpointing hearsay as a basis for testimony and demonstrating that many of the most atrocious incidents were reported second or even third-hand more often than in the first person.
Dr Nicci MacLeod, a forensic linguist who is one of the four research fellows on the project, said: “The atrocious acts committed against women and children are a central image of the Rebellion as it was reported in London newspapers and other propaganda texts of the period
“We wanted to be able to support our observations with hard quantitative evidence and were able to do this using Wordsmith software which enables us to enter a search term such as ‘wife’ or ‘woman’ and see what contexts it occurs in, how it relates to other words and in what position, which combined together give us a particular impression of who did what to whom according to the testimony.”
Dr MacLeod said they also examined the occurrence of verbs such as ‘believeth’ and ‘thinketh’ and the phrase ‘hath credibly heard’ and found that they occurred more frequently in relation to the most serious acts of violence, rather than ‘eye-witness’ words such as ‘saw’ or ‘witnessed’.
She added: “We have been able to show that there are significant differences between the use of words and phrases meaning ‘heard’ as opposed to ‘saw’ when it comes the worst atrocities reported within the Depositions, such as an act of cannibalism and many of the more infamous events. These appear to be reported more frequently through hearsay than the more moderate events.”
Analysis of the Depositions – an unparalleled resource in Europe held by Trinity College Dublin and running to some 19,000 manuscript pages or about 2.7 million words – has also provided insight into the everyday lives of those who gave their accounts of the rebellion, with the language used revealing the social, economic, cultural and political situation in 17th century Ireland.
The project, designed and led by Dr Barbara Fennell, Senior Lecturer in Language and Linguistics at the University of Aberdeen, also brought together computer specialist Dr Deirdre O’Regan, language specialist Dr Mark Sweetnam, and historian Dr Elaine Murphy, with Dr Seamus Lawless, a digital humanities specialist from Trinity College, Dublin, acting as an honorary team member.
This mix of different subject areas allowed the team to expand the usability of the language software for older varieties of English and has paved the way for use on other ‘unstable’ varieties of language as a tool for academic research.
Dr Sweetnam said: “We used IBM’s Languageware, an off-the-shelf natural language processing program designed for English as we use it today. Because the early modern English of the Depositions is so different in so many ways, we had to train the software to deal with all the differences in spelling, syntax and punctuation.
“To do this you need to have an excellent knowledge of the language you are trying to teach it and of the structure of the Depositions. By adding this specialist knowledge to the software we were able to expand the software’s ‘knowledge’ of early modern English. We’ve produced a linguistic model that achieves an outstanding rate of accuracy on the Depositions, and that can easily be used to carry out similar analysis of other early modern texts.
“By bringing together this wonderful resource from the past and cutting edge digital humanities research this project has provided exciting new insights. The link between business and academia insures that these insights have a contemporary impact. There’s a lot of interest about the possibilities of analysing user-generated content on the web. This content, which includes tweets, blog comments and Facebook updates, is almost as variable in spelling and grammar as the Depositions. The fact that we’ve successfully dealt with the challenge of this sort of unstable content means that our knowledge exchange with IBM has happened in both directions.”
Dr Barbara Fennell, Senior Lecturer in Language and Linguistics at the University of Aberdeen, added: “The impact of this new technology is that we are able to engage both with scholars with a wide variety of expertise and with members of the community to interrogate the 1641 Depositions and advance our understanding of these events and the role of language in the history of Ireland in this period. It has been a privilege to work with such a talented team, to develop a broad network of scholarship and expertise, and to deliver a product that contributes a novel and exciting way of conducting humanities research in the digital age.”
This weekend’s conference is entitled Collaborative Research on the 1641 Depositions: Process and Impact. It provides a first opportunity for the researchers on the project to present the results of their work and the novel methodologies that have made these results possible. The conference, to be held at King’s College, Aberdeen, will also see the launch of the 1641 Collaborative Linguistic Research and Learning Environment, a groundbreaking web-based portal that opens up the Depositions for linguistic analysis, and that provides an online showcase for the on-going work being carried out on the Depositions. The conference will reflect the energy and innovation of this research, with presentations from researchers from the University of Aberdeen, Trinity College Dublin, Lancaster University, the University of Uppsala, King’s College, London and IBM.