ARUN RATH, HOST:
The largest body of recorded human speech in existence comes from The Proceedings of the Old Bailey - London's oldest court. We're talking 400 years of court records - 137 million words. Now those old records are getting a very new treatment. A group of historians and scientists have spent the last 10 years digitizing those transcripts. And they've come up with a remarkable picture of how ideas about crime have changed - violent crime in particular. Jennifer Ouellette has written about all this for New Scientist magazine. She joins us now. Welcome.
JENNIFER OUELLETTE: Oh, thanks for having me.
RATH: So first off, why do they pick the Old Bailey? Why was this set of records especially attractive?
OUELLETTE: Well, because it's one of the first cases where they actually hired transcriptionists, court stenographers so to speak. So it ended up being a very, very clean data set. If you're going to be doing this kind of digital study with historical documents then you want the data set to be as clean and accurate as possible.
RATH: So once they started to crunch the numbers or crunch the data, what did they find?
OUELLETTE: What they found was that attitudes towards violence changed substantially. And what they looked particularly at was the words used in specific trials. The question that Simon DeDeo, the main analyst, asked was if you walked into a courtroom and just heard a couple of words - keywords - how much could you tell, based just on that, about what that trial was about? And early on, in like the 1600s, early 1700s, you really could not tell the difference between a trial for murder versus a trial for theft. The same words would be used. So you'd have a trial and there was, like, punches thrown and eyes gouged and hair ripped out, but it would actually be a trial for like the theft of a guinea or a handkerchief. And that says something, in part, about what people valued. Theft was actually a very serious offense. And what you actually saw over the next 150 years to 200 years was a gradual shift where suddenly violent crime becomes something separate. By the time the 1850s came around, you'd be able to tell based solely on hearing a couple of those keywords that it was a violent crime versus a less violent crime - a felony versus a non-felony.
RATH: Could you give us an example of a case that you looked at that reflects this?
OUELLETTE: Well, I opened the article with the case of Mary Kelly (ph) who was a 29-year-old woman who was on trial at the Old Bailey for theft. She essentially agreed to, you know, give a man a bed for the night for two shillings. And in the morning he caught her trying to steal some guineas from his purse. And it was a very violent altercation where, you know, a male friend of hers who had a knife burst into the room, and they actually beat this guy. But the trial was not about the violent assault. It was actually about the fact that she stole five guineas. And she ended up, you know, facing either the gallows or prison ship to Australia.
RATH: I guess if you go a couple hundred years later if you're hearing words, you know, like blood, assault, evil, things like that.
OUELLETTE: Chances are she would be tried for assault and the charge of theft would be for a lesser charge.
RATH: Now when you have a massive amount of data, people can be kind of creative about finding patterns in it.
RATH: Is there a danger with this of drawing the wrong conclusions?
OUELLETTE: That's always a danger, but that's why you need some of these more mathematically intensive techniques because it can help you go over and over the analysis. You don't just take the first patterns that come out. So you're less likely to be seeing a pattern that isn't there and it's much more likely that, in fact, it's something real, an actual trend.
RATH: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer in California. She wrote about all this for New Scientist magazine. Jennifer, thanks again.
OUELLETTE: Oh, it's my pleasure.
RATH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.