Corpus-based insights into discourses of age in the 18th century A mixed methods approach using the obituaries of the Wien[n]erisches Diarium as a starting point


In the last decades, cultural perceptions of age have gradually been taking on significance in the academic discourse. Although these perceptions are typically the subject of research in disciplines such as psychology, sociology and gerontology, linguistic scholarship has also been increasingly concerned with the topic of age (e.g. Fiehler & Thimm 1998, Krüger 2016). To further deepen this research, the poster at hand presents a corpus-based investigation into medial age discourses of the 18th century, using the Wien[n]erisches Diarium (today: Wiener Zeitung) as a data basis. The periodical, founded in 1703, is considered the oldest newspaper still in print and has already been digitized in form of the so-called DIGITARIUM (, Resch & Kampkaspar 2020) containing 339 full text issues (> 3 million tokens). By using the potentials of this digital ressource, the study aims to reconstruct early modern newspaper discourses of age, particularly in regard to how the concept of age and the process of aging were viewed by society at the time and how these views manifest themselves on a linguistic level. To achieve this reconstruction, a mixed-methods research design is proposed, consisting of both quantitative and qualitative approaches.
Hereby, one starting point is represented by the obituaries that can be found in almost every issue of the historical Wiener Zeitung: Besides name, occupation and other personal information these lists also contain the age of every deceased person inside and outside the city centre of Vienna. Also, they are given in a (relatively) consistent form (e.g. Gregori Korber / Guardi=Soldat / bey dem grünen Jäger im Lerchenfeld / alt 41. J.) which allows for (semi )automatic extraction of the age specifications from the fulltext. This quantitative approach has currently already been taken for more than 12.000 list entries and offers first insights into (non )aging in the 18th century: While the age of the deceased varies between zero and 109 years, the majority of deaths occur in childhood (< 10 years), showcasing high child mortality.
However, such statistical results about age(ing) need to be interpreted against the background of the age discourse at the time. To thus enrich the quantitative results with qualitative context, the non-obituary parts of the DIGITARIUM were searched for selected keywords (e.g. Alter*, Jugend*) and then analyzed in their semantic contexts. This combination of close and distant reading was coupled with the analysis of relevant concordances and collocations through the tool NoSketchEngine. First results of these analytical steps show that, while old people over 100 years are considered curiosities worth writing about in the Wien[n]erisches Diarium, the high child mortality rate observed in the obituaries seems to be left out of the medial discourse.


  • Fiehler, Reinhard / Thimm, Caja (1998): Das Alter als Gegenstand linguistischer Forschung – eine Einführung in die Thematik. In: Fiehler, Reinhard / Thimm, Caja (Hg.): Sprache und Kommunikation im Alter. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 7–16.
  • Krüger, Carolin (2016): Diskurse des Alter(n)s. Öffentliches Sprechen über Alter in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Berlin: de Gruyter.