Digital Hansard – Politics and the Uncivil

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Marc Alexander

    University of Glasgow

  2. 2. Andrew Struan

    University of Glasgow

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This short paper uses the recently-completed Hansard Corpus to show the patterning of attitudes expressed by the British Parliament about things considered to be ‘uncivilized' across the last two centuries. It starts from the lexical resource of the Historical Thesaurus of English to gain an overview of the lexicalisation of the concept ‘uncivilized' and uses this digital data demonstrates a substantial shift (from foreign to domestic) in who Parliament considers to be uncivil.


The ways in which the British have discussed ‘uncivilized' peoples which travellers have encountered throughout the history of English gives a key insight into how people in the past have identified and classified the world around them. This paper uses data from the Hansard Corpus ,-./-1../ (Alexander and

Davies, MNOP-) alongside the Historical Thesaurus of

English (Kay et al, MNop-) to analyse the evolution of how the English-speaking people have thought of those who they think uncivil in five different sense-families — as animals, as ill-formed people, as strange-speaking outsiders, as savages, and finally as innocents awaiting enlightenment. Only these large digital data sources can show us the patterning of who and what the British Parliament have considered to be barbarous across time.


This analysis became possible following the completion of the Historical Thesaurus of English (HT) in MNNU and the semantically-tagged Hansard Corpus ,-./-1..< in MNOP, both of which are currently directed by Alexander and were created by teams of scholars at the University of Glasgow.

The HT is a database of all the recorded words in the history of English arranged according to their meaning; one of the world's oldest digital humanities projects, and in progress for over PN years, the HT database (stored on media from punch cards to tape to diskettes to networked storage to the Web) allows us an unparalleled resource for analysing the history of English. The Hansard Corpus ,-./-1..<, completed in MNOP, is a digital corpus of speeches in the British Parliament between those dates, consisting of O.Ybn words across Z.Ym speeches. Its contents were semantically tagged in the MNO[-OP SAMUELS project (The SAMUELS Consortium, MNOP) with disambiguated meaning codes from the HT, making it possible to search for semantic categories rather than words, as we do below.

The Uncivil

The category of Civilization in the HT gives us an indication of a non-typical pattern in the number of words available to describe a given concept (in English, categories normally grow throughout time) in the words referring to uncivilized and a lack of civilization, as Figure O shows.

Figure (: The size of each subcategory of Civilization in the HT

While the size of the uncivilized adjective category rises in the latter MNth century, there is a substantial fall at the same time in the size of the lack of civilization noun category, which we argue is connected to the shift in who has been considered to be uncivil (see below). In addition, of the [M words in the uncivilized category in the HT (see Figure m), the vast majority follow a particular path of lexicalization which we describe below, with new terms reflecting the shifting conceptualization of the uncivil throughout the times at which they were coined. (adj.) Uncivilized

bserbaere OE • elreord OE • elreordig OE • haepen OE • ungerad OE • wild<wilde OE; ol300- • wildem o1300 • fremd cl 374 • bestial cl 400-1816 • savage cl 420/30- • savagine C1430-1430/40 • rude 1483- • barbaric 1490-1513; □1837- • barbar 1535-01726 • barbarous 1538- • Scythical 1559-1602 • barbarious 1570-1762 • raw 1577; 1847;

1865 • incivil 1586 • barbarian 1591- • uncivilized 1607- • negerous 1609 • savaged 1611 • mountainous 1613-1703 • ruvid 1632(2) • ruvidous 1632 • incivilized 1647 • inhumane o1680 • tramontane 1739-1832 • semibarbarous 1798- • irreclaimed 1814 • semi-savage 1833- • semi-ferine 1854-1858 (rare) • warrigal 1855 (Austral.)-l 890 • sloven 1856 (US)-] 882/3 • semi-barbaric 1864 • wild and woolly 1884- • woolly 1891- • jungle 1908- • medieval 1917-(col/oq.) • jungli 1920-• pre-civilised 1953- 01 and unsubdued unatemed OE 02 without intelligible language ungereord OE 03 sped fically of persons uncivil 1553-1644 • savage 1588- 04 pertaining to uncivilized people savage 1614- 05 acting/speaking as uncivilized barbarizing 1662; 1855- 06 rendering uncivilized barbarized 1602; 1839 • barbarizing 1809- • decivilized 1831-1892 • barbarianized 1885 • decivilizing 1889 07 becoming uncivilized barbarianzing 1859 08 absence of accepted social standards/values anomic 1950-

Figure C: The proportion of uses of uncivil words to refer to foreign or domestic persons (thickness of bars reflects the changing amounts of text in Hansard in those decades); note that the status of Ireland and Northern Ireland is contested with regards to the foreign/domestic status, and so has been represented separately here

Figure 7: ‘Uncivilized' in the HT, taken from p.(7CD of the print edition.

Thus far this sort of analysis has been slow-paced

and difficult to undertake. However, with the tagging

in the Hansard Corpus i-o/-ioo< we can investigate this sort of semantic and conceptual change in a much more rapid fashion by honing in on uses of these meanings in context across time.


There are five families of meaning into which the words above can be categorised, as outlined above. In a past article (Alexander and Struan, mno'), we assembled some evidence for this from the history of English in a non-systematic fashion. For this short paper, we instead account for all the evidence from the Hansard Corpus — over m,nnn uses of the semantic category — in order to trace across recorded Parliamentary history the shifts in the cultural, political and social attitudes towards the ‘uncivilized'. This shows a substantial change in the picture which differs from the simpler five-family view of the sense evolution of uncivil we described in that earlier article.

Our first change to discuss is the shift, shown below, from the uncivil primarily being foreigners in the OaNNs to being domestic persons in the OUNNs onwards.

This is reflected in the changing discourse surrounding barbaric and uncivil things, where a majority of MNth century uses refer to barbaric practices and actions rather than persons:

Foreign/Domestic & Category vs. Decade

Slate (condition)

Northern Ireland Practice/action

People (specific group)

State (condition)

Practice/action, State (condition)

Practice/action Place

People (specific group)

People (public body)

People (General)


State (condition)

Practice/action, State (condition)

Practice/action Place

People (specific person)

People (specific group)

People (public body)

People (General)

Object/thing Nations

State (condition)

Practice/action, State (condition)

Practice/action Place

People (specific person)

People (specific group)


People (public body) People (General) Object/thing


Figure N: A heatmap of the entities (people, states, practices) considered uncivil by Parliament in the data, separated by whether the entities are foreign or domestic

Through four other graphs, we further report on the distribution of uncivil references across the globe and between the two Houses of Parliament. We also show the changes in the five evolutionary sense-families we outline above, which is key to the for-eign/domestic shift we describe.

Some quotes from the corpus can briefly illustrate these changes, which here are aimed at a general body of persons, or a country:

Mr Charles Adderley, House of Commons MO February OaYP: ‘ discharge what Lord Grey described as the singular office of dispensing rude laws among uncivilized tribes.'

Earl of Carnarvon, House of Lords OM May OaZ[, on India:

‘But a central government is not enough. In barbarous times and in uncivilized countries, roads are the first condition of improvement; and here it will be our first duty to open and secure the maintenance of roads and trade-paths.'

Mr Richard Cherry (Attorney-General for Ireland), House of Commons MN March OUNa: ‘I never said that the people of Ireland were West African savages.'

Lord Hylton, House of Lords Oa April OUUP: ‘We can now see that in dealing with Russia we are dealing with a semi-barbarous state and a society that only knew a measure of democracy for a few years before the First World War.'

Mr Andrew Robathan, House of Commons O November MNNO, on the pending invasion of Iraq: ‘We should not allow a barbaric, mediaeval [sic] regime to succeed or last. We certainly do not want to go back to civil war.'

As a result, we can show empirically the shift over two centuries in the ways which Members of Parliament described uncivil or barbaric entities, from foreign people or places to domestic practices. We conclude by arguing that this is the result of increased oppositionality being shown in the digital Parliamentary record, and so in this short paper we combine ‘big picture' graphs of large-scale data analysis with more focused examples from the corpus record.


Adamson, S., Allan, K., Andrade, S., Arac, J., Davis, J., Durant, A., Durkin, P., Heath, S., MacCabe, C., Mehl, S., Robertson, K., and Yanacek, H. (MNOY). The Keywords Project. University of Pittsburgh. (

Alexander, M. and Davies, M. (mnop-) Hansard Corpus i-o/-ioo<. Available online at

Alexander, M. and Struan, A. mno'. ‘In countries so unciviliz'd as those?': The Language of Incivility and the British Experience of the World. In Martin Farr & Xavier Guegan (eds.) Experiencing Imperialism: The British Abroad since the Eighteenth Century, volume M. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kay, C., Roberts, J., Samuels, M., Wotherspoon, I., and Alexander, M. (eds.). mnop-. The Historical Thesaurus of English, version [.M. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.

The SAMUELS Consortium (MNOP). The SAMUELS Project. United Kingdom AHRC and ESRC.

Williams, R. (2014). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Oxford University Press.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2017

Hosted at McGill University, Université de Montréal

Montréal, Canada

Aug. 8, 2017 - Aug. 11, 2017

438 works by 962 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (12)

Organizers: ADHO