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On Close Reading and Teamwork

Bunchfussy

Pharmaceutical and Cookery Recipes, ca. 1675 (Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.21), 261.

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.

L0022575 G. Bartisch, Das ist Augendienst.

L0022575 G. Bartisch, Das ist Augendienst, 1583. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

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.

Illustration_Apium_graveolens

Apium Graveolens. Otto Wilhelm Thome, Flora von Deutschland (1885). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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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

Our First Discovery! And a brief history of the Oxford English Dictionary

Everyone at the OED is really excited about Shakespeare’s World and the potential that the project offers for making new discoveries about Early Modern English, i.e. the English of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary is a very large historical dictionary of the English language. The ‘historical’ part of this means that it documents words, meanings, and spellings from the past as well as the present, and it puts all of this information together in a structure that presents the historical development of each word. The dictionary presents a selection of its most important evidence for the past and present use of each word in the form of dated quotations: more than 3 million of these appear in the full dictionary. But the full resources that the dictionary draws on are far larger: a key role for dictionary editors is identifying instances of word usage that help explain and illuminate the milestones in the history of each word.

The first edition of the OED was published between 1884 and 1928. The existing text was substantially supplemented during the twentieth century, but it became increasingly clear to the dictionary’s editors and users that the existing text of the dictionary was in need of review, to ensure that each word history was brought up to date with all of the relevant information available today, and also that definitions and other explanations were presented in language that works for today’s readers. All parts of the dictionary—including definitions, dates of use, quotation evidence, spelling history, etymologies, and pronunciations—are now being reviewed and revised. Since 2000 the results of this revision work have been published in quarterly releases, which now cover more than a third of the original text of the dictionary. The scope for revision does not stop here: new evidence continues to come to light even for words that have already been revised, and OED’s editors endeavour to act on the most significant new evidence with rolling updates to the text. For much more information about the OED and its history see www.oed.com

At all points in the OED’s history, contributions from the reading public (aka crowdsourcing) have been welcomed with open arms, partly because lexicographers love to have some contact with their readers, but also because experience shows that such contributions can often make all the difference in opening up new perspectives on a word’s history.

Excitingly, we already have at least one example of this from Shakespeare’s World. Earlier this week, a number of project participants, including @kodemunkey, @jules and researchers @S_Powell, @LWSmith and @VVH discussed this recipe “To make the best Taffetye Tarts”:

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 16.44.34

A bit of eagle-eyed research identified Taffytie as very likely a variant form of taffeta, i.e. the name of the fabric. The OED entry for taffeta (which is one of those not yet substantially revised since it was published in the first edition, in 1910) records use from the eighteenth century in the name of a rather different sweet dish:

The entry also records various figurative uses of the fabric name from Shakespeare and his contemporaries:

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 16.48.52.png

The meanings ‘dainty’ and ‘delicate’ seem very plausible starting points for the name of a dessert dish—and the 1720 quotation refers to taffity-tarts, which the original editors of the OED had maybe taken to be a one-off reference to ‘dainty tarts’, but which it now appears more likely was the established name of a dish. Another project participant has already drawn attention to another recipe for taffity tartes, so hopefully we will soon have a healthy file of examples. Plus, the exact spelling taffytie is not yet recorded in the OED (although taffitie and taffity are), giving us further valuable data about genuine language use in Early Modern English.

The sources featured in Shakespeare’s World are particularly interesting and valuable for OED lexicographers. We have relatively easy access to a good deal of printed material from this period, now increasingly searchable in electronic collections. It is much harder for OED’s lexicographers to survey patterns of use in manuscript sources from this period, which often differ in interesting ways from printed sources—this can be in small features like spelling (as for instance taffytie), as well as in reflecting aspects of life (such as culinary recipes) that are relatively under-represented in the printed sources, or only appear there in a rather different light. This project therefore offers a new way in to some material that has previously been underexploited in tracing the history of English.

Help us find new words, variants, older spellings and more at Shakespeare’s World, and get in touch on Talk to share ideas, raise questions and keep your finger on the pulse of the early modern world!

-By Philip Durkin @philipdurkin of the OED

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

About

This the the blog for Shakespeare’s World, a collaborative full text transcription project created in a partnership between the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., Zooniverse.org at Oxford University, and the Oxford English Dictionary of Oxford University Press. In this project everyone is welcome to transcribe manuscripts created by thousands of men and women in and around Shakespeare’s lifetime, 1564–1616.

 

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