Quantifying the Language of British Politics, 1880-1914

Quantifying the Language of British Politics, 1880-1914


This paper explores the power, potential, and challenges of studying historical political speeches using a specially constructed multi-million word corpus via quantitative computer software. The techniques used – inspired particularly by Corpus Linguists – are almost entirely novel in the field of political history, an area where research into language is conducted nearly exclusively qualitatively. The paper argues that a corpus gives us the crucial ability to investigate matters of historical interest (e.g. the political rhetoric of imperialism, Ireland, and class) in a more empirical and systematic manner, giving us the capacity to measure scope, typicality, and power in a massive text like a national general election campaign which it would be impossible to read in entirety.

The paper also discusses some of the main arguments against this approach which are commonly presented by critics, and reflects on the challenges faced by quantitative language analysis in gaining more widespread acceptance and recognition within the field.

Points to a podcast by Luke Blaxill presenting the results of his Ph.D research.

Luke Blaxill’s dissertation: The Language of British Electoral Politics 1880-1910.

Important work that strikes a balance between a “close reading” of the relevant texts and using a one million word corpus (two corpora actually) to trace language usage.

Think of it as the opposite of tools that flatten the meaning of words across centuries.

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