Survey Seminar Series Spring 2023

The Survey of English Usage organises a number of seminars each year for staff and students from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and beyond. They are generously sponsored by the English Department.

The following research seminars will take place during the Spring term.

The second seminar will take place at 4pm in the Archaeology Lecture Theatre, UCL Institute of Archaeology, Gordon Square.

Tuesday 6 February, 4pm, IAS Forum, Room G17, South Wing, UCL Main Building   Justyna Robinson, University of Sussex
Mass Observing concepts during Covid-19 pandemic in the UK

Numerous linguistic changes which are motivated by the pandemic are already well-recognised in everyday language use, such as changes to the uses of lockdown, mask, virus, and frontline. Our research focuses on identifying less intuitive expressions and ideas in order to capture less salient changes between different phases of the pandemic in the UK as well as before and during pandemic. In order to achieve this task we explore narratives contributed to the Mass Observation Archive (MOA).

MOA is a life-writing project that solicits narratives on a range of topics, from a panel of c.500 members of the public. Since 2020 three of the MOA calls have specifically focused on Covid-19. We explore these narratives using new computational linguistic and visualisation techniques that we have developed in in Spring-Summer 2021 in a HEIF-funded project “Post-COVID visualisation tool to analyse socio-economic and demographic data in the UK.”

Thursday 14 March, 4pm, Archaeology Lecture Theatre, Ground Floor, UCL Institute of Archaeology, Gordon Square. Theresa Neumaier, Technical University in Dortmund, Germany
I will be revenged upon you – forms and functions of threatening letters in Late Modern English

Compared to related aggressive speech acts (such as swearing or insults), threats have so far received relatively little attention from a historical pragmatic perspective. This is not to say that threatening language has not been investigated at all – apart from a considerable amount of research based on modern datasets, threats have been addressed in several historical contexts, such as Victorian Ireland (e.g. Peters & van Hattum 2021), Early Modern Scottish (Leitner 2015), or Middle English literary texts (Rudanko 2004). All these studies have demonstrated that threatening communication is closely linked to its sociocultural and sociohistorical context, and, thus, might be subject to change over time.

In this talk, I explore the forms and functions of threats in a corpus of Late Modern English (LModE) threatening letters discussed in criminal trials at the Old Bailey. Using the trial discussions as a co-text, I first show which conditions texts must fulfil to be classified as ‘proper’ threats by trial participants and letter writers. I then present an in-depth analysis of the typical characteristics of LModE threatening letters and the linguistic patterns employed to formulate the threats. Overall, it can be seen that both trial participants and letter writers routinely address the preparatory and sincerity conditions of commissives to negotiate whether a letter classifies as threatening or not. I also find quantitative differences between LModE and present-day threats, particularly with respect to the viewpoint which is expressed and the explicit mentioning of threatener, target, and type of harm to be carried out. Finally, LModE threatening letters contain a greater amount of taboo language and more retaliative threats than can be found in comparable modern English datasets.


Leitner, Magdalena. 2015. “Conflicts in Early Modern Scottish Letters and Law-Courts.” PhD dissertation, University of Glasgow.

Peters, Arne, and Marije van Hattum. 2021. “Pseudonyms as Carriers of Contextualised Threat in 19th-century Irish English Threatening Notices.” English World-Wide 42(1): 29-53.

Rudanko, Juhani. 2004. “‘I wol sterve’: Negotiating the Issue of a Lady's Consent in Chaucer's Poetry.” Journal of Historical Pragmatics 5(1): 137-158.

All welcome!

Past events

This page last modified 6 February, 2023 by Survey Web Administrator.