The title question above might be more recognizable as the following in a semi-diplomatic version:
ffor Heavens sak, whi wolde a person euer spelle yt that waye?
Or, in a modernized version: For Heaven’s sake, why would a person ever spell it that way?
If you spend any time reading (or trying to read) early modern manuscripts, you will quickly discover that it is best to forget much of what you have learned about modern spelling. The standard forms and rules for English in the twenty-first century—such as they are—do not apply! Most early modern writers saw no need to follow a strict orthography, and little in the way of such a thing existed in any case (a push for standardization came later). This pitfall feature of sixteenth and seventeenth century English manuscripts confounds many transcribers today, at least at first. Admittedly, the randomness of the spelling in these texts takes some getting used to, but a freedom of thought and language shows in the way words were put to paper in these manuscripts. This laissez-faire quality conveys a wonderful sense of the time as well as a certain beauty.
Aesthetics aside, the non-standardized spellings of words in these manuscripts may provide important nuggets of information for study. Along with identifying new word variants in the OED, tracking usage is useful for scholars in many ways as they research how language and thinking shifts over time, not to mention the idiosyncrasies of individual writers. A reflection of regional pronunciations is one factor to consider. For example, in the letter below, one can see the word “shute” on the ninth line as a form of “suit,” perhaps suggesting a dialect in play.
Such spellings do present headaches, but a transcriber can often sound out a word from the letters she/he sees on the manuscript page. Of course, the letters should always be entered as they appear (with expansions for common abbreviations), but understanding the meaning of a word in a sentence is also important for the transcriber. Making your own modernized version, even if it’s only in your head, can help as you work through a page.
See this great discussion thread about the different values of original and modernized transcriptions on Talk. Sharing your transcriptions or modernized versions of them on Talk is often helpful to other transcribers (and yourself). It’s also an excellent way to get a discussion going and spark ideas.
Another key factor to keep in mind about early modern spelling is that a large number of new words were entering the English language during this period, either absorbed from other languages or simply created. Shakespeare is credited with generating several hundreds of neologisms in his works, and he spelled them as he pleased. Other well-known (or lesser-known) writers did the same. Their printed publications are the evidence. Those who study manuscripts wonder if at least some of the presumed neologisms identified in print had actually already appeared in manuscripts. As transcription work continues in Shakespeare’s World and elsewhere, answers to such questions may come to light.
Finally, people have asked me about finding patterns in early modern spelling to make things easier or speed up the transcribing process, and I have heard various theories put forward. Clearly, as one sees how a scribe forms particular letters—some hands are quite distinct—that knowledge aids subsequent identifications. However, I caution transcribers about putting too much confidence in a supposed pattern. Writers often do not spell the same word in the same way even on the same page. Again, the best rule is to limit assumptions and transcribe letters as you see them. Easy shortcuts for early modern spelling do not really work, but here are a few specific points to keep in mind if the spelling of a word is giving you trouble:
- the “v” and “u” letters are often used almost interchangeably, but the “v” is more common at the start of words even where one might expect a “u,” e.g., “vp”
- the “u” and the “n” letters look the same; as do some “e” and “d” letters; context is often the only way to figure out which is right
- the letter that looks like a “y” is sometimes a thorn (for “th“) but other times a “y” that serves as a vowel like the modern “i,” e.g., “ys” (“is”)
- what one might consider extra letters (e.g., an “e” at the end of a word) commonly appear, but letters we expect might also be missing (e.g., “mony” for “money”)
- words often break in unexpected places, either at line breaks or within lines; again, context will help you figure out the meaning, but transcribe the words as they appear
- remember to check for abbreviated forms on the interface and in the Shakespeare’s World Guide and to expand such words with the tags provided
- ask for help on Talk if you’re stuck
Early modern spelling is a massive topic, and this post just scratches the surface. Look for more in future posts and continuing discussions on Talk.
by Paul Dingman @pding001
It’s been nearly five weeks since we embarked on Shakespeare’s World and so far quite a few transcriptions have been submitted. So first of all, thank you to everyone who has participated on the project. In addition to the transcriptions being generated on the project interface, it’s been great to see so much discussion on Talk where subjects range from recipe ingredients, to horses, to the fate of petitioners to the crown, to the questions about our research methodology and project design.
So, in the spirit of openness and trying to keep you updated about our collective progress, here are some early numbers.
24,252 transcriptions have been submitted. This can be anything from one word, to a few words in a row, to a whole line, to marking a graphic or indicating a page is blank.
2,333 ‘subjects’ (in Zooniverse parlance) have been worked on. This includes images of single or two page spreads from manuscripts in the Folger collection of recipes and letters. Of these 628 have been completely retired.*
Since launch there have been 23,165 sessions logged by 13,876 unique visitors to the site, and ~80,700 pageviews.
The top ten contributing cities are mapped here: London is in the lead, followed by ‘unknown’, New York, Washington, D.C., and Oxford, UK. Australia is gaining on the USA and UK though, so the top five spots are up for grabs.
We hope you’re enjoying the project or that you’ll be making you way over to http://www.shakespearesworld.org/ today to get involved.
* In an email to all participating users in mid December I stated that ~1400 images had been retired, as in fully transcribed by three people, but this was not the case. ~1400 images had been worked on by at least three people.
And the winner is…Judy Bell aka @specks, with ‘Happy Holidays’
Judy used text from a range of Folger manuscript sources to compile her acrostic. She took the challenge to the next level by trying to find manuscript words for each word in her message. Some of them are a bit of a stretch, but the message is great and the first letter (and word) in each line is correct, which is what counted for the challenge.
We would also like to thank our other participants who took part in the challenge.
Learning to write the alphabet is one of the first stages of writing literacy. For early modern English children, this meant first learning to read the letters of the alphabet (printed in black letter) from a hornbook.
They then learned to write the letters of the alphabet in one or both of the two main handwritten scripts, secretary and italic. For this, they relied on manuscript or printed copybooks or exemplars, usually supplemented by instruction from a writing master at a writing school, a private tutor or family member, or usher in a grammar school. ((See Herbert C. Schulz, “The Teaching of Handwriting in Tudor and Stuart Times,” The Huntington Library Quarterly (4), August 1943: 381-425.))
Below are two plates from Jehan de Beau-Chesne’s and John Baildon’s A booke containing diuers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, chancelry & court hands (London, 1602 [first ed. 1570]) (Folger STC 6450.2) that depict versions of secretary and italic hand:
On both of these leaves, someone has tried to imitate the letter forms. In the top example, the brand new writer got through some of the minuscule and majuscule forms of the letter A (“a a a A A [upside down!] a a a”) before smudging out his or her work. Further progress is made on the “Italique hande” leaf, where the letters A through J (and perhaps an attempt at the letter K) are awkwardly and painstakingly formed underneath the exemplar. (By the way, the aphorism on this leaf is from Cicero.)
Children learned their letters by repeatedly tracing and copying strokes, letters, alphabets, pangrams (sentences that contain all the letters of the alphabet), and aphorisms. Beau-Chesne’s copybook was not the only one to contain the verse instructions, “Rules made by E.B. for children to write by,” that describe the ideal quill, ink, and posture for a child’s first experiences with writing. The instructions even advise on how the teacher should prepare the paper:
… Scholler to learne, it may do you pleasure,
To rule him two lines iust of a measure:
Those two lines betweene to write very iust,
Not aboue or below write that he must:
The same to be done is best with blacke lead,
Which written betweene, is cleansed with bread.
Your pen from your booke, but seldome remoue,
To follow strange hand with drie pen first proue:
(copied from Folger STC 6450.2)
That is, use a graphite pencil to rule a piece of paper with sets of double lines for the child to write between. Then write some exemplar letters for the child to copy. He or she can trace them with an inkless quill in the first instance, and then proceed to use ink. The pencil lines can be erased with bread.
The result might be something like below, in which one Stephen Poynting, possibly a student at the Free School in Gloucester, practices a pangram, “Job a Righteous man of uz waxed poor Quickly” (i/j and u/v counting as single graphs). He writes it twenty-one times, and his spacing between words grows larger and larger so that he can no longer fit the last word of the sentence (he appears to be writing one word of the sentence at a time, in columnar format). If you look closely at the piece of paper, you can see that it is blind-ruled; that is, guidelines have been made with an inkless quill to help him write in a straight line.
by Heather Wolfe @hwolfe