Donkey discourse: investigating the ways in which language and societal discourse shape popular representations of donkeys and affect their status within UK/British culture

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Despite their enormous contribution to society, donkeys are much maligned in popular culture and often given very little respect. Misconceptions and donkey stereotypes (i.e. stubborn, stupid) are commonplace and can be witnessed in the language of insult and ridicule. Using corpus-assisted analysis, this project explores how language and societal discourse shape popular representations of donkeys and affect their status within UK/British culture. We build on the growing body of scholarship on the linguistic representations of animals, including how language affects the way animals are perceived and treated by humans.


J. Bough. 2011. Donkey. Reaktion Books: London.
A. Goatly. 2006. Humans, Animals, and Metaphors. Animals & Society. 14:1.
A. Sealey, N. Charles. 2013. What do animals mean to you? Naming and relating to nonhuman animals. Anthrozoös 26, pp. 485–503.
A. Sealey, C. Pak. 2018. First catch your corpus: methodological challenges in constructing a thematic corpus. Corpora Vol. 13 (2): 229–254


We used a corpus linguistics approach to analyse over 1 million references to donkeys within three key genres: news media, social media and professional information sources (academic and NGO). This involved using specialist statistical software to scan a digital database of texts and identify salient patterns in language use about donkeys. Key patterns were analysed in more detail, using fine-grained (critical) discourse analyses. Interviews and focus groups were also conducted with individuals of different demographics and stances.


This 12-month project aims to challenge donkey stereotypes and misinformation about donkeys. It also offers linguistic recommendations that promote positive representations of donkeys, contributing to The Donkey Sanctuary's mission to raise the status of donkeys in the UK and abroad. Research questions include: What are the main ways that donkeys are represented in UK/British culture? Are there regional differences in the way donkeys are represented? What are the differences between scientific texts vs popular texts? Is there a relationship between donkey roles (e.g. working animals, pets, production animals) and the way they are represented?