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LINGUIST List 24.1138

Wed Mar 06 2013

Review: Discourse Analysis; Forensic Ling; Historical Ling; Socioling: Cecconi (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 08-Jan-2013
From: Anna Majek <mayekatcd.ie>
Subject: The Language of Defendants in the 17th-Century English Courtroom
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-1969.html

AUTHOR: Elisabetta Cecconi
TITLE: The Language of Defendants in the 17th-Century English Courtroom
SUBTITLE: A Socio-Pragmatic Analysis of the Prisoners' Interactional Role and Representation
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Anna Ewa Majek, Trinity College Dublin


The book under review is based on a number of studies presented at national
and international conferences from 2008 till 2012. It concentrates on the
defence system in the 17th century English courtroom and has a twofold object
of inquiry: “1) the interactional role of defendants in 17th-century English
trial proceedings (1616-1693) and 2) the ideologically-charged representation
of their verbal and non-verbal behaviour in the text, at the author-readership
discourse level” (p.11). The book is divided into two sections. The first part
concentrates on the interactional role of defendants in 17th century trial
texts. The second section presents the representation of defendants in treason

The book starts by presenting the objects of analysis, the approach taken,
problems of data collection, methodology and a description of the dataset. The
chapter closes with an overview of features of the 17th century courtroom and
a review of previous literature in the field of Early Modern English courtroom

Part one
This section consists of two chapters: ‘Defendants and professionals: verbal
duelling in the arraignment section’ and ‘Defence construction in the evidence
phase.’ The aim of the first chapter is “to examine instances of deviation
from normative behaviour and classify the discourse strategies by which the
reified power of the Court is challenged and resisted by less powerful
participants in specific contexts” (p.50). The analysis is based on three
groups of trials which differ from one another in terms of defendants’ status
and the crime committed. The first group entails cases of defendants of higher
status, i.e. army professionals, gentlemen and ministers. The second group
involves trials of middle class defendants and dissenters accused of religious
subversion such as refusal to take oaths, illegal assembly and incompetent
ministry. The third group consists of defendants of lower status charged of
burglary, housebreaking and theft. The analyses are to determine whether and
to what extent:

1) Archer’s (2008) suggestion that impoliteness is rare in historical
courtroom discourse is corroborated by the author’s findings,
2) ‘resistance’ to the Court’s power and control is a practice involving
defendants of lower as well as upper classes,
3) differences in terms of crime committed and social status can determine
different relational work between judges and defendants (Cecconi 2011, p.
104). ‘Relational work’ (Locher 2004:51) covers the entire continuum from
polite and appropriate behaviour to impolite and inappropriate behaviour
during interaction between a minimum of two participants.

The analyses show that in the first group occurrences of prototypical
impoliteness are rare. The ruder character of interaction is recognized in the
status of defendants as dissenters. The last group of trials shows occasional
attempts at a strong refusal to comply with the legal procedures. The exercise
of power is not related to the status of the speaker. Cecconi finishes this
chapter by stating that this particular dataset is not sufficient for a
detailed analysis of the participants’ linguistic behaviour, to make comments
on the goals of the speaker and on the receiver’s responses.

The aim of the second chapter in this section is to outline the question and
request-types used by the defendants during the examination phase, to provide
a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the distribution of directives
(questions and requests) and representatives (accounts, denials, answers) in
the dataset and to present the defence strategies adopted by defendants. The
dataset consists of transcripts of 16 trials dating from 1616 to 1692; about
114,000 words. The investigation reveals that in the first half of the century
defendants were still unwilling to appeal to their rights to ask questions to
defend themselves. The increase in the number of questions in witness
examination started from the 1650s onwards. Defendants were inspired by the
professionals’ examining practises and borrowed some of their questioning
techniques in order to shed some doubt on a witness’s testimony or to use
forms of intimidation.

There were differences found in the facework dynamics between professionals
and defendants. The professionals’ discourse behaviour showed more consistency
with truth-seeking purposes, whereas defendants used the same challenging
questions as professionals but with an attitude which was clearly
face-aggravating, as their main aim was to prove the truthfulness of their
version of the story. In some cases defendants overused the professionals’
discourse practices and abused their questioning rights, for example by
attempting to intimidate witness by reminding them that they were under oath.

Part two
The second part of this book concentrates on representation of defendants as a
form of political propaganda. The analysis is based on three court cases for
high treason taken from the State Trials: the trial of Thomas Wentworth, earl
of Strafford (1641), the trial of James Duke of Hamilton, earl of Cambridge
(1649), and the trial of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (1644). All
were charged for their roles in Charles I’s Personal Rule and for their
unlawful acting against the kingdom. The trials of Wentworth and Hamilton were
recorded by an external recorder who presents himself as an eye-witness to the
proceedings, whereas the account of the trial of Laud was written by himself.
The investigation focuses on the representation of the defendant, be it in the
form of other-representation (trial of Wentworth and Hamilton) or
self-representation (trial of Laud). The study reveals that the three
documents are all propaganda texts of Royalist stance “intended to construct
and promote consensus over the defendants through different forms of
ventriloquy” (p. 217). They are also of great importance in terms of the
defendants’ representation in the courtroom for the propaganda purposes of the
author. In the trial of Wentworth and Hamilton, for example, the external
perspective of the reporter favours a higher use of evaluative lexis (e.g.
‘moderately’, ‘boldly’, and ‘learnedly’) for representing the prisoner or his
counsel so that a reader is presented with a ready-made interpretation of
their attitude. This is not the case of Lauds’ trial, who with the exception
of the formulaic adverb ‘humbly’ and a few cases of ‘patiently’, did not use
any clear evaluative markers of his behaviour. The difference between Laud’s
trail and the other two is that it used more comments on the injustice of the
proceedings and the unreliability of accusation.


The book offers valuable reading for historical courtroom linguists, legal
historians and researchers in the field of language, ideology and political
propaganda in the early modern period. It is also a great source of
information for anyone interested in historical pragmatics, socio-pragmatics
and corpus-based studies.

The book is well-written, well-organized and easy to follow. The author
explicitly discusses the aims and methodology of analyses, and provides
numerous examples and in-depth explanations. Each chapter is closed by a
conclusion of the main contents discussed, which helps the reader to review
the information received before moving to the next chapter.

A great attribute of the book is that it presents diversity of trials: from
high treason to religious subversion, from murder to felony and misdemeanour.
In each case the defendant’s discourse behaviour is analysed in relation to
historical, socio-cultural and institutional aspects of the period discussed.
Thanks to this wide-ranging presentation the reader gets not only a great
overview of the language of defendants but also of the historical evolution of
the legal system.

Another positive feature of this book is that it gives ideas for future
research and inspires a reader to further reading in the field of courtroom

All in all, the book is very interesting, involving and useful. It extensively
and clearly covers all aspects of the defence system in the 17th century
English courtroom and it reaches out to a great number of scholars interested
in different areas of expertise.


Archer, Dawn E. 2008. “Verbal aggression and impoliteness: Related or
synonyms?” In D. Bousfield and M. Locher (eds.). Impoliteness in Language.
Studies on its Interplay with Power in Theory and Practice. Berlin, New York:
Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 181-207.

Cecconi, Elisabetta 2011. “Power confrontation and verbal duelling in the
arraignment section of 17th century trials”. Impoliteness and facework across
legal contexts, Special Edition of the Journal of Politeness Research, vol.7:

Locher , Miriam 2004. “Power and Politeness in Action. Disagreement in Oral
Communication”. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.


Anna Ewa Majek is a PhD research student at Trinity College Dublin. Her
primary research interests include corpus linguistics, language variation and
change and sociolinguistics
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