uncaple – eye-skip, or a new form for the OED?
@parsfan was transcribing a letter from 1715, summing it up as “Basically, a complaint by some Warwick Innkeepers that they haven’t been paid for four months for quartering a troop of Dragoons”. There’s an unusual spelling “uncaple”, which appears at the beginning of the second line here:
The word clearly means “uncapable”, and at first glance, this perhaps looks like a case of eye-skip, someone skipping ahead to the second “a”, which seems especially plausible as the letter gives the impression of being written in something of a hurry. However, a bit of further sleuthing shows “uncaple” also occurs in a 1629 quotation already in the OED, and there appear to be a number of further examples in the Early English Books Online database of digitized early modern printed books. So, although a lot more research work will be needed, it looks like we may well be onto an addition for the OED here.
An image of the full letter is below, and more information about this manuscript from the Folger catalog may be found here.
the tolfte of November
@mutabilitie spotted this interesting spelling of twelfth as tolfte:
It comes from a letter from Francis Kynnersley, written in Badger in Shropshire, to Walter Bagot, circa 1620. We’ve not yet found other Early Modern examples of this spelling, but the Linguistic Atlas of Later Medieval English records some similar forms – and, very interestingly, they come from Shropshire, just like this letter. So often you find that when you start to put together isolated bits of information like this, an interesting pattern begins to emerge, and we learn a bit more about the history of English.
Again, an image of the full letter page is below, and information from the catalog record may be accessed here.
by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary
“Antedatings” for the Oxford English Dictionary are always exciting, showing that a word or meaning has been around for longer than previously thought. Sometimes, though, they just take your breath away. For instance, the OED’s editors recently prepared a new version of WHITE and its various compounds and derivatives. This involved, among other things, carefully combing through all of OED’s existing quotation files, and numerous online databases of historical linguistic evidence. In this process the earliest example we found of white lie (“A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told in order to avoid hurting another person’s feelings”) was from 1741. Imagine, then, our surprise and delight (and yes, it is delight, rather than lexicographical sour grapes!) when keen-eyed Shakespeare’s World participant mutabilitie found this in a letter from 1567:
Lines 8/9 give us “Albeit I do assure you he is vnsusspected of / any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye)”, pushing “white lie” back nearly two centuries earlier than we previously suspected.
An obvious question is why we haven’t added this to the OED the day that @mutabilitie spotted it. In this instance, we’ll need to do a bit more work on this manuscript letter, to be sure of how we want to cite it, and especially date it, in the OED – and we very much hope that the experts at the Folger will be able to cast an eye over that as well.
In other cases, the work involved for the OED will be more extensive, and take longer. The task of revising an OED entry is complex, and typically involves a number of different specialists – for instance, researchers checking numerous data collections for examples of the word (especially ones that are earlier or later, or point to different meanings or constructions); expert definers, assessing how the meaning is described; specialists compiling data on the typical spellings a word has shown through its history; etymologists, tracing how the word has been formed, where it has come from, and how it has been influenced by other languages; bibliographers, scrutinizing how examples are cited and dated and ensuring that the cited text is accurate – and this is before we take account of areas that typically impinge less on the Shakespeare’s World data, such as pronunciations, or definitions of scientific vocabulary. Coordinating all of this work involves an intricate sequence of inter-connected tasks, and inevitably takes time – particularly when your wordlist runs to over a quarter of a million words. That’s why some of the Shakespeare’s World material that will ultimately have a big impact on OED entries will get an enthusiastic “thank you” from OED editors but may not show up in the published dictionary text until it can be incorporated as part of a full revision of the dictionary entry where it belongs. This is probably going to prove the case with the discoveries about taffety tarts and farts of Portugal in two earlier posts: the entries for both taffeta and fart are due for full revision for the OED at some point in the not too far distant future, which will enable us to take full account of how this new information helps transform our understanding of the history of these words.
by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary
A number of postings on Talk have highlighted exciting finds for the Oxford English Dictionary coming out of the work of Shakespeare’s World participants. Look for blog posts here in the coming weeks on some of these discoveries and how they are informing the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
We are thrilled to have this information for the OED, and intend to make full use of it in revising the dictionary (for more information about the OED and its revision programme see the earlier posting on taffety tarts).
However, we’ve been only too aware that not all participants have access to the online OED (although many people already do, typically through libraries or academic institutions).
We are therefore delighted to announce that, as of now, OUP will be happy to give free access to the OED for any Shakespeare’s World participants who have made more than 500 transcriptions (of up to a line each) in the past year. If you fall in that category and would like access to the OED to help you transcribe and explore these fascinating documents, then please contact us with the subject line ‘Shakespeare’s World OED access’.
by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary
This recipe “To make mackroones or portugall farts”, not surprisingly, raised some eyebrows after it was spotted by @kodemonkey:
The mackroones are macaroons, and the spelling mackroon is already recorded by the OED for the 1600s and 1700s. The portugall farts appear to be the same thing as the “farts of Portugal” which the OED records for the sixteenth century as a specific culinary use of fart (in its usual, embarrassing meaning):
The parallel that French pet (also literally ‘fart’) is similarly used to denote a doughnut or similar air-filled treat suggests strongly that we are indeed looking at a humorous use of the familiar word, giving an insight into the different ideas of decorum – and indeed of what might or might not put someone off eating a pastry – of another age. In fact French dictionaries record (in medieval French spelling) pets d’Espaigne, literally ‘Spanish farts’, dating back as far as 1393. The keen eyes of the Zooniverse community have given us an important pointer for expanding the coverage of this item for OED and a stimulus to include this word soon in OED’s rolling revision programme. (The current version of fart in the dictionary dates back in essentials to 1895 – revising the OED is a Sisyphean task!)
It’s also worth highlighting a few of the less immediately arresting things coming out of Shakespeare’s World that nonetheless get lexicographers and linguists excited. @LWSmith’s blog post On Close Reading and Teamwork drew attention to fussy smalligs probably meaning ‘fuzzy smallage’, as originally spotted by @parsfan. As Laura points out, the spelling fussy for fuzzy isn’t yet in the OED. But looking again at Gervase Markham, OED’s current earliest source for fuzzy (spelt fuzzie) in the very early 1600s, shows that he also wrote about a soft fussie and vnwholsome mosse and about clay of a fussie temper (in contrast to stiffe blacke clay), all of which suggests that another close look at the early history of fuzzy is thoroughly merited. Again, Zooniverse researchers and volunteers have pointed the way for what will be important revision work for the OED.
Finally, @jules spotted the spelling receitpte in a recipe heading:
The word receipt was originally spelt with no p, spellings such as receit being common in early use. It comes ultimately from Latin recepta, but was borrowed into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French, in which it had forms such as recette or (in Anglo-Norman) receite. From an early date spellings with a (silent) ‘etymological’ p are found in Anglo-Norman and Middle French and also in English, reflecting awareness of the word’s Latin origin. The hitherto unrecorded spelling receitpte spotted by @jules, with an additional t in front of the p, is really illuminating. This writer clearly knows that the word is written with a silent p. Perhaps receitpte is the result of getting so far in writing the word, remembering about the silent p, and leaving the first t as an uncorrected error. Or perhaps (I suspect more likely) this is a belt-and-braces way of signalling loudly and clearly “you spell this word with a p but pronounce it as though it just had a t”. It would be great to know whether any other –tpt– spellings are lurking in these manuscripts. Transcriptions on Shakespeare’s World, and especially lively discussions on Talk, are just the way we’re going to find that out.
Many of our regular contributors will have seen (and indeed been interviewed for!) this article by Roberta Kwok for the New Yorker back in January of 2017. Roberta briefly describes the algorithm that merges the multiple transcriptions of pages by independent volunteers in Shakespeare’s World into a single transcription for a given page. The algorithm is called MAAFT, and is typically used to align genetic sequences. The idea behind this approach to transcription is that it allows us to combine transcriptions of smaller strings with longer strings in the same line. So, if I transcribe only one word on a line, and @parsfan and @mutabilitie transcribe the whole line, my small piece will still be counted by being compared with theirs and then slotted into the right place in the transcription. Zooniverse’s former data scientist and I decided to implement this method in an effort to enable people to contribute even small transcriptions to this relatively difficult project.
The other reasons we went for the MAAFT approach is that it means that anyone to take part in the project who wants to, without having prior paleography training. It’s ok if you make mistakes, because multiple people are transcribing the same material, so if you’ve transcribed a few letters correctly and some incorrectly, the correct ones will get taken through to the final transcription. This method of combining multiple volunteers’ efforts stems from the same scientific practices that underpin Galaxy Zoo, Penguin Watch, and all other Zooniverse projects, and is vital to the acceptance of crowdsourced data by experts in the sciences, humanities and museum and library fields. Enabling independent crowdsourcing, and then putting the results together is supposed to create a rigorous dataset, and I’m sure that it will for Shakespeare’s World in the near future, but we’re in a holding pattern until September, when a new data scientist will start working to unpick and rebuild our text aggregation process.
Rest assured that we’re not losing anyone’s work—it’s all saved in a database—but we’re not currently able to piece the separate transcriptions together reliably. This is why, in part, we have not yet published much data in the Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) database at the Folger. However, as Philip announced in previous posts on this blog, quite a few interesting finds are already being incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary, and he says that Talk is the most effective platform for getting crowdsourced updates into the dictionary. Meanwhile our guest scholars from the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) have also been gathering invaluable data for their work via Talk, and many of you have been helping me gather #catholic and #womanwriter sources.
So, for now, one of the best ways to contribute to Shakespeare’s World is to hop on Talk and use those hashtags, for example #paper, #oed, #Catholic and #womanwriter. We hope to have our aggregation sorted soon, and the transcriptions freely available to all.
-By Victoria Van Hyning, @vvh
By the Shakespeare’s World team
Cross-posted on The Recipes Project with some slight differences.
One year ago the Early Modern Manuscripts Online project at the Folger Shakespeare Library partnered with Zooniverse to officially launch Shakespeare’s World, in association with the Oxford English Dictionary. What better way to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, than to invite people into our manuscript collection so that we could learn together about the everyday experiences and scribblings of his contemporaries? For 12 months we have been puzzling through thousands of pages from recipe books and correspondence (in 2017, further images and genres will be added).
On our first day we put out a world-wide welcome all call to join us in transcribing “handwritten documents by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and help us understand his life and times. Along the way you’ll find words that have yet to be recorded in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary.”
We were thrilled by the response! Transcribers in Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, UK and USA, as well as elsewhere, promptly jumped on board. At one point, within hours of launching, 300 users were simultaneously transcribing. From that day forward the Shakespeare’s World community was formed.
The handwritten words in Shakespeare’s World manuscripts are far more intimate than what you might read on a printed page. Their immediacy – a letter or recipe written in haste, a letter accompanied by a couple of old ling, a cheese or fresh nectarines, a pewter box of mithridatum and angelica roots sent in the time of plague – is compelling. We hope transcribing on Shakespeare’s World transports our volunteers from the modern day and drops them directly into the midst of the early modern world, with all the noise and smells (good or bad) that this entailed. Through the recipes and letters we encounter busy lives communicating, cooking, negotiating, quarrelling, cajoling, healing, burning, itching, vomiting, scolding, bleeding and more.
The website itself follows an inductive learning sequence. It has a brief tutorial with sample alphabets to help users identify early modern letters. Users have the option to skip an image if the writing or subject matter is not to their taste. Shortcut buttons make it easy to expand abbreviations (wch / which; wth / with; yr / your).
Here is a snapshot of what you would have encountered, should you have decided to transcribe a letter at 4.05pm EST, December 8, 2016!
Here is whistle stop tour of our very full year, season by season!
Shakespeare’s World has a ‘Talk’ platform which hosts interaction between transcribers and the research team, supporting wide-ranging discussions about paleography and specific manuscripts on a daily basis. When users log their transcriptions, they can comment on the image by adding #hashtags. Winter is a time of baking and nesting so it came as no surprise to see that our first #recipes2try were comfort foods such as marmalade, damson plum tart and caraway buns.
Throughout the year Shakespeare’s World transcribers have kept their eyes peeled for potential new early modern words or meanings to add to the OED. They ping these to #PhilipDurkin on Talk using #OED. Winter was probably our busiest time for #OED finds, with a flurry of words highlighted. You can read all about the first forays into word questing on Philip’s February blog post here including the Talk musings over what exactly are “Portugall farts“? (answer: a kind of macaroon).
Spring saw a turn to matters of husbandry with animal care figuring largely. Transcribers discussed and observed many tips on keeping one’s horses, sheep, hens and hogs healthy. How to color paper and how to lure an earwig out of your ear with a slice of warm apple, were other charming finds.
As well as #OED, another popular tag among our transcribers is #paper. Shakespeare’s World transcribers have been tagging paper and its use as a tool (such as to apply a salve to a wound, or in baking) after learning that Elaine Leong was researching the use of paper in medical and culinary recipes.
One of the liveliest discussions on Talk took place in summer, over a recipe in Margaret Baker’s receipt book for convulsion fits in children, which required a mountain elf’s foot. To read more on paper and the mystery ingredient ‘elf’s foot’, or anything else, please check out our Shakespeare’s World blogs by some great guest authors!
Also catching volunteers’ eyes were birch twigs used as whisks, pomegranate pill (the rind) used to make ink, and powders for childbirth. Timely for summer was a sunburn remedy from the diaries of John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon from 1662 to 1681. He recommends a concoction of honey, nettle seed and daffodil roots.
Moving into September, we were delighted that our number of registered users continued to grow. As the days grew shorter and the leaves changed color, the Shakespeare’s World community rounded up our favorite booze recipes, and the Folger received some excellent volunteer amendments to our catalogue records.
So far over 2,500 people have registered to take part in Shakespeare’s World (we have many more unregistered contributors as well). Together, we have transcribed 91,000 lines on over 3,000 pages. Shakespeare’s World’s #OED work also continues apace. The findings of our volunteers are particularly valuable because although OED lexicographers have considerable access to early modern printed material, they don’t have the same access to manuscript sources. We look forward to these word findings being incorporated into the OED in due course.
Please join us at shakespearesworld.org, if you haven’t already done so! Not only will you love the conversations on Talk, but you will also be helping to transform thousands of digital images of early modern manuscripts into a readable and searchable corpus on EMMO.folger.edu (coming soon in beta). We can tell you from experience that transcribing on Shakespeare’s World is strangely and satisfyingly addictive, like peeking into someone’s mail and Moleskins from four centuries ago. Surprises and discoveries are to be found on every page!
A huge thank you to all of our resident ‘experts’ & to you our community of valued volunteers, citizen humanists, transcribers, volunpeers…whichever term you prefer. Some familiar names on Talk are the brilliant moderators @mutabilitie & @jules – & of course our fantastic volunpeers @parsan, @Greensleeves, @IntelVoid, @Christoferos, @kodemonkey, @Cuboctahedron, @cdorsett, @Tudorcook, @Traceydix, @kerebeth, @Dizzy78, @mmmvv1, @fromere @ebaldwin @Blaudud -but this list is nowhere near comprehensive.
Whether you chime in on Talk, or transcribe anonymously, we couldn’t do it without you. All of us at the Shakespeare’s World team look forward to greeting you back here next year!
Follow us on twitter @ShaxWorld
It’s not every day that you come across a recipe that calls for elf hoof. Not even when you regularly work with old manuscript recipe books. Nope. Not even when looking at an eighteenth-century grimoire, in which the most unusual ingredient is the white coating (thrush? milk?) scraped from a newborn’s tongue.
When I spotted @MyraMo and @mutabilitie discussing Margaret Baker’s remedy ‘For Convolchen fetts in yong Children’, I was initially drawn in by @MyraMo’s question about mouse heads and afterbirths. (Who wouldn’t be?) But the recipe became even more intriguing when @mutabilitie commented:
I reckon the ten-clawed hoof of a mountain elf mentioned at the beginning would have prevented anyone from actually trying out this recipe – probably just as well!
Afterbirth? Uncommon, but not unexpected. After all, I’d come across dried mummy, menstrual blood, spit, feces, and urine before. Mouse head? That, as it turns out, was merely a misreading of ‘dead man’s head’. While shocking to modern sensibilities, skull was an ingredient common enough to be listed in official pharmacopoeia. Elf hoof!? That was entirely unexpected—and certainly not a misreading:
Take the houf of an Elfe it is best that lives in the mountaine & hath tenn clawes upon one foote one of those clawes must be rasped and made into very fine pouder.
I didn’t initially dismiss the possibility of Margaret Baker truly meaning elf hoof. I’ve previously looked at the classification of hobgoblins and their ilk, but had not encountered any descriptions of the medicinal uses of supernatural creatures’ body parts. Elves, like any other supernatural being, could help or hinder humans. Given that early modern medicine regularly included human body parts, which were seen as particularly efficacious, surely supernatural body parts would be even better.
That said, ‘elf hoof’ was more likely to refer to some herb. The OED didn’t turn up anything obvious except for elf dock and elfwort, alternative names for elecampane. Culpeper’s The English Physician (1652) notes that this herb grows in shady places and, governed by the sun, is hot and dry in the third degree. It even looks like the sun and its root is like a hoof with claws. One species, orestion, grows specifically in the mountains, according to Robert Hooper (1817). As a stimulant and tonic, it is useful in treating old coughs, shortness of breath, windy stomachs, stopped menses and urine, gout, sciatica, and stitches in the side caused by the spleen. ‘Elf-shot’, a term dating back to the Anglo-Saxons, was still in early modern use to describe certain physical and mental disorders. For example, sharp and shooting pains, such as stitches, gout or sciatica, might be elf-shot.
Pretty convincing. The mandrake, however, is another contender. In The Compleat Herbal of Physical Plants (1707), John Pechey noted that it grows in woods and shady places and is a good narcotic. Culpeper, in the Pharmacopia Londinensis (1718), advised against the use of mandrake roots because of the dangers posed by it being cold in the fourth degree. It could, however, be useful for ‘such as have a frenzy’ (269). The mandrake, thought to be luminous, was governed by the moon and, as such, could be used to treat ailments such as epilepsy, an ailment associated with the full moon. Folklorists Thomas Dyer and Richard Folklard describe the mandrake’s various magical uses, ranging from love charms to treasure finders. Resembling the human form, mandrake roots were sometimes sold as little mannikins and (in early modern France) they were sometimes seen as a species of elf. Those who possessed mandrakes often cared rather elaborately for it, providing it with food and drink, much in the same way that one might try to keep other supernatural creatures within the household happy.
But which fits better with the remedy as a whole? In addition to elf hoof, skull and afterbirth, the ingredients were leaf gold, peony, cowslip, mithridate, nutmeg and amber. The remedy suggests that the convulsions were epileptic; it was to be administered at the change of the moon and several of the ingredients were intended to counteract the effects of the moon. For example, gold, amber and peony were all ruled by the sun. Other ingredients were intended as protective, such as the mithridate (a cure-all), the man’s skull (like cures like, in that epilepsy was also a disease of the head), and the afterbirth (acting symbolically). The ingredients in general had sedative and anti-spasmodic properties.
Elecampane fits the description of elf hoof in that there is a specific type grows in the mountains, it treats ‘elf-shot’ (of which epilepsy might be one type), and it is associated with the sun like most of the other ingredients. Mandrake, in contrast, stands out as being a cold ingredient. It fits in other ways, however: it had narcotic properties and was associated both with diseases of the moon and elves.
The recipe blurs the magical and medical in intriguing ways with several of its ingredients and timing of administration. It also suggests the complicated pathways of transmission over time. Elf hoof may very well have been a local term, or one that simply made it into Margaret Baker’s collection when she heard it from someone else and it took her fancy. The remedy also hints at the continued existence of much older ideas: sun and moon, elf-shot, and mannikins. In the end, for the modern reader, Margaret Baker’s description is both incredibly specific and frustratingly vague. The elf hoof that she describes in great detail no longer corresponds to our modern terms, leaving a recipe that seems more mysterious than it probably was at the time.
What do you think it was: elecampane, mandrake… or elf?
The tale of Bunchfussy begins with @parsfan’s comment:
‘The second recipe is a guest appearance by another hand, perhaps Mrs Bunchfussy herself, who sounds like a refugee from a Dickens novel.’
That would be delightful! Unfortunately, as I spotted immediately, this was the Mrs Dunch who had been mentioned in several other recipes. But… what WAS that word immediately after her name? Team Bunchfussy’s quest to identify the word reveals a lot about the importance of close reading and teamwork.
Since I’ve started transcribing recipes online (first with EMROC and now with Shakespeare’s World), the way that I read them has changed. As a busy researcher, I ordinarily would have skipped over a mystery word like this one. In the interests of maximising research time and ploughing through lots of sources, I probably would decide that identifying the word was unimportant. There was already plenty of information: a name, an ailment, a list of ingredients. Missing this word out would not be a problem.
Transcribing online is different, though. The Shakespeare’s World system, which only presents one decontextualized page at a time, forces the transcriber to read closely. The handwriting can be difficult and, without an entire manuscript for reference, the only clues to decode an excerpt are on that page. Every letter, every mark, every word is important. And the transcriber is compelled to linger, focusing on the details and considering the possibilities.
Close reading is usually solitary, but on Shakespeare’s World, it often becomes collaborative. Perplexing examples are posted on Talk by transcribers where we puzzle over them together.
@mutabilitie joked that ‘it looks like “pissy” to me, but I suppose we can safely rule out that reading.’ Except… it did look rather like pissy.
The debate on the page initially focused on whether the first letter was a ‘p’ or an ‘f’, with contributors mustering evidence about letter shapes elsewhere in the recipe.* The general consensus was ‘f’. Perhaps it might be ‘firstly’ or ‘fully’ or even ‘fussy’? @S_Powell reported back that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), fussy would not have yet been in use. Then @elaineleong suggested ‘fissy’, but didn’t think it made much sense. She also suggested that we were all might be on the wrong track. What if the word belonged to the first recipe line rather than the title and attribution?
Indeed, what if it went with the word directly under it? Fussy smalligs. Fuzzy smallage!!! A quick check of the OED revealed that fuzzy was in use in the seventeenth century. And suddenly we had an answer. It may not have been Bunchfussy, but the second word was indeed fussy after all.
An individual researcher might have skipped over a seemingly unimportant word, but ‘fussy’ turned out to provide a surprising amount of information that would have otherwise been missed. The knowledge that fuzzy smallage rather than plain old smallage was included in the recipe is interesting in two ways. First, the fuzziness might indicate its particular stage of growth—perhaps when in flower. That might indicate the timing (late summer) for preparing the recipe. Alternatively, it might be specifying use of the leaves rather than the stalk. Either way, this was a clue that would have been left out of a quick read of the recipe. Second, ‘fussy’ has not yet been listed in the OED as a variant of ‘fuzzy’.
Close reading, perseverance, and teamwork are rewarding. In an age of perpetual busy-ness and fast reading on the web, that the internet can also bring opportunities for slowing down fills me with delight.
*In addition to those named above, thank you to @Hannebambel @Greensleeves @Cuboctahedron for their contributions, which included points of clarification and transcriptions.
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