Researchers from the University of Aberdeen joined forces with IBM's LanguageWare research team over the last year to understand a key moment in history.

Using LanguageWare as a basis, the team created a set of digital language analysis tools, including one they called Wordsmith, and used them to understand the creation of propaganda in the aftermath of the 1641 Irish Rebellion.

A team including Trinity College and Cambridge, transcribed and digitized 8,000 depositions taken in 1641 of Protestant survivors of the rebellion, as well as some Catholic participants. The Aberdeen/IBM group then used the analytical tools to understand relationships between the types of language used. The results, and the full archive, are available at a dedicated website, 1641 Depositions.

The picture to emerge in the aftermath of Cromwell's destruction of the Catholic rebels was one of mass slaughter by Catholics of women and children. This project's forensic analysis showed how that picture was created.

One thing they found - and that would have taken a generation to parse by hand and eye - was the the worst atrocities were usually accompanied by language indicating the interviewee had not witnessed the occurrence him or herself. This persists throughout the depositions.

In a statement, Dr Nicci MacLeod, a forensic linguist, and one of the four research fellows on the project, said:

"The atrocious acts committed against women and children are a central image of the Rebellion as it was reported in London newspapers and other propaganda texts of the period. We wanted to be able to support our observations (that these were unsupported statements) with hard quantitative evidence and were able to do this using Wordsmith software which enables us to enter a search term such as 'wife' or 'woman' and see what contexts it occurs in, how it relates to other words and in what position, which combined together give us a particular impression of who did what to whom according to the testimony."

Pamphlet image from Trinity College | other sources: Past Horizons