This article explores the problem of using court documents for studies of the spoken language of the past. It discusses three sets of examination records from the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692. By comparing records that exist in two or more alternative versions, the article shows that there are substantial linguistic and content-related differences between the versions. It is suggested that the recorders of the examinations paid more attention to the substance of the proceedings than to the exact language used by the participants and that the recorders reconstructed the courtroom dialogue on the basis of (shorthand) notes, mixing their own and the informants' language. The variation in the documents casts doubt on the reliability of the records as accurately reflecting the original courtroom dialogue. The use of the examination records as linguistic sources is thus called into question, especially for historical sociolinguistic studies that attempt to correlate language use and extralinguistic factors such as sex, age, and social status.
Peter Grund; FROM TONGUE TO TEXT: THE TRANSMISSION OF THE SALEM WITCHCRAFT EXAMINATION RECORDS. American Speech 1 May 2007; 82 (2): 119–150. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-2007-005
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