A common language and shared understanding of family violence? Corpus approaches in support of system responses to family violence

by Tonya N. Stebbins and Cara Penry Williams

In an age where women are increasingly active in the workforce and have historically high rates of engagement with education, the lack of safety many experience in their own homes is profoundly troubling. Family violence, also called domestic violence, and related issues such as intimate partner violence are understood to be supported by the unequal status of women and men both in relationships and at the broader level of society.

Language is often highlighted as an issue in relation to family violence because it plays an important role in the ways the violence is both perpetrated and hidden from view. The ways we speak, or fail to speak, about family violence can make it difficult for victims to understand what is happening to them and to find ways to seek assistance. There have been longstanding concerns that different professional areas or sectors responsible for addressing family violence think, write and talk about it in very different ways.

But what exactly is going on? What concepts are shared and where are the differences in the ways people discuss family violence? Linguistics as a discipline provides a range of methods for thinking about how language is organised and used. Corpus linguistics involves computational methods to look for patterns in language use through a range of different lenses.

The State of Victoria, Australia, held a Royal Commission into family violence in 2014–2015 with findings published in 2016. The commission received close to 1,000 written submissions, of which 756 were publicly available. These materials represent a diverse range of voices from individuals who have experienced family violence, to family members who lost loved ones, to a range of government and business organisations as well as contributions from the welfare and legal systems.

Our research uses tools from corpus linguistics to compare the language of submissions from people and organisations connected to the provision of community services with submissions from those primarily engaged in the legal system. We focussed on exploring the way that people with different identities and roles are positioned in written submissions to the Royal Commission.

This happened in three stages, which we briefly outline here with some example findings. First, we asked who is in focus in the materials? The most frequent type of person(s) mentioned in all the submissions we analysed was women, with children in second place and community and people also amongst the most frequently discussed. This is in spite of the fact that the of the Royal Commission was directed to focus on preventing family violence (which suggests a focus on perpetrators), and improving system responses (suggesting a focus on systems and organisations).

We then explored the ways in which the words women, children and people are used in the submissions by considering the words typically associated with them. This analysis showed, for instance, that in relation to women there is a preoccupation with ‘prevention’ in the community services writing that is not evident in the submissions associated with the legal system. This is surprising given the focus of the Royal Commission and the role of the law in preventing ongoing family violence.

Finally, we considered the ways in which the words women and men are used in sentences. We found, amongst other things, that while men are associated with verbs that express high levels of agency, women are most often subjects of verbs such as experience, have, and be. The verbs report and feel appear in the top five verbs with women as a subject in the legal sector documents. This is important as such uses typically convey reports of women’s assessments of their treatment or situation. The verb feel reduces the legitimacy of their assessments when other more cognitively oriented verbs are available (e.g. know or think).

Our approach in this research has been to find questions drawn from known challenges identified by professionals in our area of research, rather than derived from the data or linguistic perspectives. The need for shared language and common understandings around family violence has been under discussion across a range of sectors for some time. See our article for a discussion of why sharing terminology does not equate to removing language and communication problems and for further findings from the analyses. We have presented this research at a corpus linguistics conference but also to researchers of violence against women from a range of disciplines via a network at La Trobe University and, importantly, to relevant service providers. This has resulted in other research questions and new related projects. In this way we have used methods from corpus linguistics for social impact and contributed to understanding the language elements of this social issue which damages and ends so many lives.

Read the associated journal article in Corpora here.


Corpora is an international, peer-reviewed journal of corpus linguistics focusing on the many and varied uses of corpora both in linguistics and beyond.

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About the authors

Cara Penry Williams is a Senior Lecturer in English Language at the University of Derby. Her research draws on diverse traditions of qualitative and quantitative methods with a focus on sociolinguistic issues and discourse.


Professor Tonya Stebbins is an experienced consultant having completed projects across the Health, Human Services and Education sectors. Her current research is concerned with the ways in which language, communication, and identity can be enablers and barriers to service delivery and system engagement.

Edinburgh University Press
Edinburgh University Press
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