ffor Heavens sak, whi wolde a pson euer spelle yt yt waye?

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.

Image of letter: L.a.176

Folger MS L.a.176 (Letter in Bagot Family Papers)

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


What is EMMO?

Some may well ask what is EMMO, and what does this acronym have to do with Shakespeare’s World? To give a short answer first, EMMO (pronounced “eh’-moh” not “ee’-moh”) stands for Early Modern Manuscripts Online.


The EMMO logo

Essentially, EMMO is a broad paleography project funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and based at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. EMMO has two main goals, the first of which is to build a compilation of vetted transcriptions to accompany images of manuscript pages from the Folger’s collection. To give an idea of the numbers involved, EMMO currently has over 41,000 images to transcribe and encode. The second — but certainly not secondary — goal of EMMO is to promote the general study of early modern paleography. Serendipitously, Zooniverse was branching out from the sciences and looking into the humanities at about the same time that the EMMO project began, so a crowd-sourcing website pertaining to paleography and enlisting the skills of citizen humanists seemed an excellent way to accomplish many goals at once.

In early 2015, members of the respective EMMO and Zooniverse teams reached an agreement about the site, and development work began in earnest over the summer. By September of 2015, we were ready to try a limited alpha test.

Something we discovered during the alpha was a way to make the Shakespeare’s World transcription interface match the way paleography is taught and practiced at workshops and events sponsored by EMMO, such as transcribathons. Taking a cue from the Folger’s online transcription tool, Dromio, and the list of common abbreviations in our “Alphabet Book,” the Zooniverse team crafted a substantial number of shortcut buttons to help citizen humanists transcribe these shortened forms quickly.

common-abbreviations from alphabet book

Sample of common abbreviations from Alphabet Book that are available in the Shakespeare’s World interface

Feedback was received from the alpha, observations made, and a beta test followed in November. One of the suggestions was to have sample alphabets available for users on the site. The EMMO team found examples of individual letters, both minuscule (lower case) and majuscule (upper case) and sent these to the Zooniverse team who integrated the alphabets into the main interface.

picture of alphabet feature

Sample Alphabet – Minuscules

alphabet picture - majuscules

Sample Alphabet – Majuscules

Originally, manuscript page images from a wider variety of genres were planned for the launch, but we decided to focus on just two genres for the start, specifically letters and recipes, as these materials would likely be more recognizable, and the Folger’s entire collection of these genres could be included. In all, the EMMO team identified and transferred just under 8700 distinct images to Zooniverse for the launch. So far, we been pleased with the way users have taken to these manuscript pages so readily! The discussions on “Talk” have been quite lively and most interesting.

In the months ahead, we plan to transfer additional genres of manuscript images from the Folger collection to Shakespeare’s World, including miscellanies, literary works, newsletters, diaries, coats of arms, sermons, and more. Watch for announcements in 2016.

After we receive aggregated transcription data back from Zooniverse (a conglomeration of the contributions by all the citizen humanists on Shakespeare’s World), the EMMO team will check the data and encode the transcriptions into TEI-P5 compliant XML that will eventually be fully searchable via the free, online EMMO database. When this database is implemented later in 2016 or early 2017, scholars and the general public will have much greater accessibility to these rare manuscripts and a new research tool for analysis.

For more about EMMO and our transcribing events, see the links below:

We may try to do some virtual or in-person (or combination) transcribathons with the Shakespeare’s World community of citizen humanists in 2016, so stay tuned!

By Paul Dingman @pding001

Welcome to Shakespeare’s World, and… why we love letters

Welcome to Shakespeare’s World! EMMO (Early Modern Manuscripts Online at the Folger Shakespeare Library), Zooniverse, and the Oxford English Dictionary are thrilled to partner on this groundbreaking project to transcribe the Folger’s amazing collection of manuscripts from Shakespeare’s era. The research potentials are endless—we can’t wait to see what people will find and learn and create once this treasure trove of thousands of manuscript texts is made available to all.

Our inaugural blog post touches on letters, one of the first two genres we are introducing to our Shakespeare’s World contributors. The second post will focus on recipe books, the other genre.

Letter from Jane Skipwith to Lewis Bagot, ca. 1610.

Letter from Jane Skipwith to Lewis Bagot, ca. 1610. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.a.852.

Here’s why we love letters from the 16th and 17th centuries: they are full of personal details and tidbits about the lives of real people with real problems and concerns and needs – information that you would never encounter in a printed work from the period. It turns out that then, like now, one of the biggest worries was… money.

Detail ("the money") from a letter from Ralph Adderley to Walter Bagot, 4 March 1607. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.a.7.

Detail (“the money”) from a letter from Ralph Adderley to Walter Bagot, 4 March 1607. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS L.a.7.

Here’s another reason: you can actually “hear” the voices of women, servants, college students, children, tradespeople, and other individuals who are not well represented in the printed world. The spelling is often phonetic in the letters of people who were not highly literate, which provides great insight into how certain words were pronounced in the period.

“i umbli tacke leue,” or, as we would write it, “I humbly take leave.” Detail from a letter from Elizabeth Cavendish to her mother, the formidable Bess of Hardwick. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS X.d.428 (50).

“i umbli tacke leue,” or, as we would write it, “I humbly take leave.” Detail from a letter from Elizabeth Cavendish to her mother, the formidable Bess of Hardwick. Folger Shakespeare Library, MS X.d.428 (50).

You can also witness queens and kings communicating with each other on an “unofficial” level, as in Elizabeth I’s intimate letters in her own handwriting to James VI of Scotland.

Beginning of letter to "My deare brother," from Elizabeth I to James VI, 16 March 1593.

Beginning of letter to “My deare brother,” from Elizabeth I to James VI, 16 March 1593 (they weren’t really brother and sister). Folger Shakespeare Library, MS X.d.397.

One could argue that the letter was the single most important genre in the Renaissance period, since it was the primary form of direct communication across long distances. Letterwriting was the means by which Shakespeare and his world established contact, kept in touch, swapped news and gossip, forged alliances, conducted business, asked for forgiveness, and fell in love. Letters can be funnier, richer, more bizarre, and more moving than anything that the fiction of the period has to offer.

–Heather Wolfe, @hwolfe

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