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Radical Love at the Colored Conventions Transcribe-A-Thon

Radical Love at the Colored Conventions Transcribe-A-Thon

The staff of the Women Writers Project was proud to add our support to the Colored Conventions Transcribe-A-Thon in honor of Frederick Douglass’ birthday and Black History Month, hosted by The Colored Conventions Project (CCP) at the University of Delaware. We joined universities across the country in transcribing the minutes of the colored conventions. The conventions were historic gatherings of African-American leaders; they began in 1830 and continued until well after the Civil War.

Although Douglass was born into bondage, and never knew his birthdate, he choose to celebrate it every year on February 14. We were proud to join the CCP in celebrating “radical love” this Valentine’s Day by commemorating the birthday of Fredrick Douglass with a transcribe-a-thon. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the term, a transcribe-a-thon is as straightforward as it sounds: a gathering of people participating in a “marathon” of transcription.

We’re happy to report that our local transcribe-a-thon at Northeastern University, jointly hosted by the Women Writes Project, the Digital Feminist Commons, and the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, was a resounding success. As a group, we transcribed the minutes of the 1859 “New England Colored Citizens’ Convention,” which was held in our hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. Staff and students alike had fun recognizing local places, names, and organizations in the minutes, as well as getting a hint of the basic sense of joy and accomplishment of adding to our national history.

For more information and to join the transcription efforts of The Colored Conventions Project, click here. You can also browse the event’s Twitter action on the event Storify page, here.

The Women Writers Project team hard at work on the CCP transcriptions.
Women Writers Project director Julia Flanders made a delicious cake in honor of Fredrick Douglass’ birthday.
Manicules, double daggers, and silcrows! Oh my!

Manicules, double daggers, and silcrows! Oh my!

The power of the corpus-wide query can often unearth a few surprise gems. While the team was researching the way notes are formatted in WWO, we became curious about which characters appear before notes in our texts. A quick XQuery script later, we had uncovered a few fun and interesting findings in the list of characters that are prefixed to the <note> elements in WWO.1 You can see the whole list at the bottom of this post.

It’s not really surprising that the asterisk (*) tops the list, with 2,431 instances across our published texts. Daggers (†) and double daggers (‡) are also fairly common, with hundreds of instances each. Looking further down the list, however, reveals some characters that might be less familiar to those who haven’t worked extensively with early texts. For example, the manicule appears six times. The term “manicule” comes from the Latin maniculum or “little hand.” The first known use of the manicule dates to the 1086 Domesday Book, a meticulous recording of landownership in England produced for William I; however, popular usage of the symbol really picked up steam in the Renaissance period.

A right-pointing manicule from the Specimen Book of the Cincinnati Type Foundry, 1882.
A right-pointing manicule from the Specimen Book of the Cincinnati Type Foundry, 1882. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
Note the manicule inserted before the first reward headline in this 1865 broadside concerning the capture of Lincoln assassination conspirators. This document was published in the Eyes of the Nation : a Visual History of the United States by Vincent Virga. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Three authors in the WWO corpus use the manicule as a notational symbol: Charlotte Turner Smith, Mary Deverell, and Anne Francis. Smith and Deverell make use of the symbol once, while Francis uses it four times in her 1790 collection, Miscellaneous Poems. While exploring the manicule’s use across the corpus, the team also unearthed an author, Katharine Chidley, who uses the manicule alone as a note—as in the manicule appears by itself in the margins to literally point to places of emphasis. Chidley uses the manicule this way eleven times (!) in A New-Years Gift, or a Brief Exhortation to Mr. Thomas Edwards. 

An example of the manicule encoded as the paragraph contents of a note in
An example of the manicule encoded as the contents of a note in Chidley’s A New-Years Gift, or a Brief Exhortation to Mr. Thomas Edwards.

Returning to the list, the fourth most common item, “#rule,” deserves some glossing. The WWP uses “#rule” with the pre/post keywords on our rendition ladders to indicate cases where horizontal ruled lines appear in our texts; for the WWP’s purposes, ruled lines might include series of dashes or straight lines with minor detailing and they might be used either indicate divisions in a text or for decorative purposes. For more detail on the Women Writers Project’s encoding of ruled lines and ornaments, see here.

Finally, the silcrow (§), or section sign, or “double S” (it goes by many names) appears as the fifth most common notational symbol in the corpus. The silcrow points to sections—much like the paragraph sign (¶) is used to point to paragraphs. In the WWO corpus, the silcrow is regularly used, like the dagger and double dagger, to mark the anchor points of notes. The silcrow’s modern usage has evolved to primarily encompass citation in legal texts. In fact, in some European countries its symbolism has become intertwined with law to the point where it serves as the sign for the justice system, much like the use of the scales.

The logo of the Bundesministerium für Justiz, or the Austrain Federal Ministry of Justice.
The logo of the Bundesministerium für Justiz, or the Austrain Federal Ministry of Justice. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The full list of our results for characters prefixed to notes follows. We’ll continue sharing any potentially interesting results from our cross-corpus queries on this blog, so watch this space for more!

Symbols prefixed to notes in WWO

2431 *
821 †
170 ‡
82 #rule
46 §
23 a
20 b
19 c
14 d
14 ∥
12 e
11 1
10 ]
9 ‖
8 |
7 (1)
7 (2)
7 (3)
7 (4)
7 C
7 x
7 ¶
6 (6)
6 (7)
6 (a)
6 A
6 B
6 D
6 E
6 f
6 F
6 ☞
5 [
5 (10)
5 (5)
5 (8)
5 (9)
4 (a)
4 **
4 (11)
4 (b)
4 g
4 G
3 (b
3 +
3 (12)
3 (13)
3 h
3 H
3 I
3 K
2 (1)
2 (2)
2 (3)
2 (4)
2 (c)
2 (d)
2 (e)
2 (14)
2 (15)
2 k
2 l
2 m
2 n
2 q
2 X
1 (f)
1 (g)
1 (h)
1 (i)
1 (k)
1 (l)
1 (*)
1 16
1 2
1 2.
1 (16)
1 (17)
1 (18)
1 (19)
1 (c)
1 i
1 j
1 L
1 M
1 N
1 O
1 o
1 P
1 p.
1 r
1 ſ
1 ”
1 ⫲


A (semi-)Serious Proposal to the Linguists

A (semi-)Serious Proposal to the Linguists

God, Vertue, Ladies, and Souls

A few days ago, I came across this really interesting Language Log post, which talks about capitalization in one of our Women Writers Online texts—Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694). In the post, Mark Liberman asks the question: “Why did authors from Astell’s time distribute initial capital letters in the apparently erratic way that they did?” Liberman looks at sentences like this one, which describes the purpose of Astell’s proposal:

It’s aim is to fix that Beauty, to make it laſting and permanent, which Nature with all the helps of Art, cannot ſecure: And to place it out of the reach of Sickneſs and Old Age, by transferring it from a corruptible Body to an immortal Mind.

Since this is a WWO text, I decided to try a bit of experimentation and see what I might be able to uncover using not just the text itself, but also the markup. For just a bit of background, the texts in WWO are encoded according to the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative. You do need a subscription to access the collection, but we are always happy to offer free trials, so if you don’t have institutional access or an individual subscription and are interested in reading the texts in WWO, you can find instructions for how to set up a month-long trial here. If you’re curious about the details of our markup, those are covered in our internal documentation.

The first thing I did was enlist some help from Syd Bauman and Ashley Clark, our XML developers. Syd generated a list of all the capitalized words in Astell’s Proposal, along with their immediate ancestry (i.e., the local elements around each word). We found 2,491 capitalized words in total. Reviewing the elements in this list, I could see that it was likely many words were capitalized for reasons reflected in their markup. For example, there were proper nouns (tagged with <name>, <persName>, and <placeName>), titles of other texts (tagged with <title>), and the document’s own headings (tagged with <head>). There were also some words that were simply appearing at the starts of sentences.

So, I asked Ashley and Syd to help me come up with a new list of the capitalized words in Proposal, excluding those in proper nouns, titles, headings, and at the start of sentences. That list is here (original spellings preserved). The top results are: “God” with 31 instances; “Vertue” with 31; “Ladies” with 24; and “Souls” with 21 (in case you’re wondering, the WWP does not encode “God” with <persName>; see here for more details). The rest of the top fifteen—Women, World, Good, Nature, Piety, Religious, Religion, Soul, Beauty, Education, Glory—are all the sorts of word I’d expect to see capitalized in a seventeenth-century text. Reading through the whole list, I was also struck by how much it does feel like an inventory of the text’s core concerns.

Beauty and Death

Having looked at the capitalized words in an individual file, I thought it would be worth investigating all of the occurrences of those words across our corpus. So, since “Beauty” was a commonly capitalized word for Astell (in addition to being relatively short and without too many potential spelling variations), I started with that.

I first wanted to determine if I should be concerned with weeding out the capitalized cases of “Beauty” in sentence-initial positions. A bit of exploration showed me that there weren’t many such cases, and most of these came from texts that also had instances of “beauty” capitalized in the middle of sentences. I found only a handful of clear cases where “beauty” was being capitalized just because it was at the start of the sentence, so I decided not to worry about sentence position. I did find several texts that capitalized “beauty” only some of the time—in a few cases, this seemed to indicate a distinction between personified beauty and a more general usage (e.g., contrast “Soft Beauty’s timid smile serene” with “youth and the bloom of beauty,” both from the 1824 Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson); in other cases the pattern was less clear. These instances, presumably would be one place I might start if I were investigating this phenomenon in earnest.

So, armed with the power of XPath, I set out to investigate the beauties of WWO. Here’s what I found. There are:
1577 total instances of Capital-B “Beauty” and
1863 cases of lowercase-b “beauty”
Looking across the whole corpus, that’s about 46% capitalized instances.

I repeated the search with “beautie” (to catch both “beauties” and the alternate spelling of “beautie”) and while there were fewer hits, the results were similar in terms of percent capitalized:
438 Beautie; 580 beautie (43% capitalized)

For “beautiful” I saw a different distribution:
71 Beautiful; 1619 beautiful (4% capitalized)

Since I suspected that this kind of capitalization would be more common in our earlier set of texts, I decided to narrow down the results. That just meant adding a bit of XPath before my search to look only in texts with publication dates before 1701 (198 out of 388 texts total).

Here’s what I found:
872 Beauty; 415 beauty (68% capitalized)
270 Beautie; 235 beautie (53% capitalized)
36 Beautiful; 212 beautiful (16% capitalized)

For this term at least (and with all appropriate acknowledgement of the highly rudimentary nature of this search), there does seem to be a bit more capitalization in the earlier half of the collection. Next, I wanted to see what else I could do with our markup. In my review of the tags we used for capitalized words in Astell’s Proposal, I had noticed that there were quite a few occurrences of <mcr>; this is a WWP-created element for a “meaningful change in rendition.” We use it where there are changes in rendition (such as between upright and italicized text) that are neither a printer’s error nor a merely decorative shift and that we can’t encode with more specific elements (such as <emph>, <name>, &c.). It’s essentially an element that says: “we think something semantically significant is happening with rendition here, but we’re not able to say exactly what.” Liberman alluded to this sort of thing when he wrote: “[And never mind, for now, Astell’s italicization choices…]”

Thinking that there might be interesting links between capitalization and these meaningful-but-unspecified changes in rendition, I tried my “beauty” search again, but restricted my results to text inside of <mcr>.

Here’s what I found, first looking across the corpus as a whole:
102 Beauty; 16 beauty (86% capitalized)

And then just the pre-1701 texts:
83 Beauty; 5 beauty (94% capitalized)

Admittedly, the corpus is small enough that narrowing down this far means you have fairly few results. (I also tried “beautie” and “beautiful,” but there really weren’t that many once I narrowed to the contents of <mcr>; for what it’s worth, 35 out of 37 instances of “beautie” in <mcr> are capitalized.) Still, there does seem to be something potentially interesting here. Most of the time, the rendition doesn’t change with capitalization (there are, after all, 1475 instances of “Beauty” in the collection that are not in <mcr>), but when the rendition does change, there is a higher percentage of capitalization. I decided to try another keyword and see what came up. I went with “death” this time, using the same criteria that it’s short, fairly common in the corpus, and without many spelling variations (there is “deathe,” which had 5 capitalized and 138 lowercase instances overall, none in <mcr>, all from texts published before 1701). Here’s what I found:

2578 Death; 4759 death (35% capitalized)
239 Dead; 2381 dead (9% capitalized)

1226 Death; 2115 death (37% capitalized)
110 Dead; 1313 dead (8% capitalized)

Contents of <mcr>
251 Death; 54 death (82% capitalized)
218 Death; 34 death (87% capitalized)

These are just two specific keywords, of course; if I were pursuing this seriously, I’d want to refine the search itself and try quite a few more terms as well as other XPath variations: looking at headings and titles, checking for items in lists, perhaps comparing verse and prose, and so on.

“Friendship Cheese”

Finally, I decided to take a look at the contents of <mcr> itself, using an XQuery that Ashley Clark wrote for the WWP (affectionately nicknamed “The Counting Robot” and available here). I normalized punctuation, long s (ſ) characters, and whitespace, but preserved capitalization. I got 21,741 different strings inside of <mcr>; of those, 16,832 were unique. Many of the unique cases are not single words or short phrases, but entire sentences or clauses where the renditional shifts cannot be attributed to emphasis or quotation. The top term on the list was “God,” with 1237 results; rounding out the top-five for the corpus are: Lord, I, Love, and Author.

Of the 127 cases with 30 or more hits, all but ten are capitalized—the exceptions are: “life,” “death,” “lying,” “they,” “she,” “love,” “one,” “her,” “he,” and “royal paper.” (This last item serves as a small caveat regarding the size of our corpus: all 204 instances of “royal paper” appear in a single text, Mary Jones’s 1750 Miscellanies in Prose and Verse.) Nevertheless, I do think that these exploratory results show that there is a great deal of potential for more serious research into these features using the WWO corpus—and if anyone is interested in a project along these lines, I’d be delighted to help set that up. In fact, this is my semi-serious proposal to anyone in the research community (linguists or otherwise) who might want to take this kind of work up.

One of my favorite things about this sort of exploration is that it brings me into contact with our texts in unpredictable ways, usually emphasizing how interesting and genuinely fun our corpus is. This was no exception and I’ll end here with my personal Top Ten results from the contents of <mcr>:

  • Wretched productions! inspired by hunger and dictated by stupidity and a disposition to lying! &c &c
  • As Irish ladies pass in jaunting cars
  • Confounded Harlot!
  • Effemenate Cat
  • For Gad Madam I don’t love being baulk’d thus
  • Friendship Cheese
  • Great Cuttle’s gland
  • Hedges of the Eyebrows
  • His lisping children hail their sire’s return!
  • Julius Cesar when he was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell


Loanwords, Macrons, and Orientalism: Encoding an Eighteenth-Century Fictional Translation

Loanwords, Macrons, and Orientalism: Encoding an Eighteenth-Century Fictional Translation

By Elizabeth Polcha, WWP Encoder and Ph.D. Candidate in English

Since late last fall, I’ve been encoding a text that poses some interesting markup challenges because of its use of Orientalist language: Scottish author Eliza Hamilton’s 1796 epistolary novel, Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah. While I was excited to encode Translation because my own research considers eighteenth-century colonial literature, I focus on Caribbean and American literature. So, as an encoder, I approached Translation with an interest in how Hamilton is using distinct language to construct colonial notions of race and gender, but with only a limited familiarity with Orientalist print culture and history.

Before I lay out the details of how I’ve been encoding linguistically distinct language in Translation, it is necessary to explain just how Orientalist (and orientalist, to use Edward Said’s version of the term) this novel is. And no, Translation is not actually a collection of letters that Hamilton translated from Hindi.1 The “translated” letters of Hamilton’s text are fictional, mostly authored by the titular character and protagonist, Zāārmilla, the Rajah of Almora. Hamilton supplements the letters with a “preliminary dissertation,” lengthy footnotes, and a glossary of terms. She strategically includes these textual addendums as a way of demonstrating her expertise in the Orientalist scholarship of her time. Also, as you can see from the macrons included on “Zāārmilla” and on another major character’s name, “Māāndāāra,” Hamilton is a fan of using diacritical marks as a kind of typographic flourish. In writing Translation, Hamilton participated in a scholarly discourse rooted in a Western imperialist fascination with Eastern Asia, citing British colonial scholarship like Nathaniel Halhed’s A Code of Gentoo Laws Or, Ordinations of the Pundits and Orientalist groups like The Asiatic Society.2

Part of our encoding process at the Women Writers Project is to begin with a preliminary document analysis. This means that once we’ve acquired a text to encode, we look through the text carefully to take note of its structure and textual features before opening up an XML file and marking up our text in TEI. During my preliminary document analysis of Translation, aside from noticing the epistolary structure and Hamilton’s unusual diacritical marks I’ve described above, I also noticed quite a few Hindi and Sanskrit terms and phrases that seemed to be roughly transliterated into English (such as “Poojah” or Pūjā, पूजा, a Sanskrit-derived word for Hindu ritual prayer). From my document analysis I knew that it would be important to look up the etymology and meaning of Hamilton’s transliterated terms in order to decide how to most accurately describe them using the TEI. My encoding practice for Translation so far has involved occasionally switching between my XML file, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Google Books in determining the best way to tag specific terms and phrases.

The WWP follows the TEI Guidelines for capturing specialized language with the element <distinct>, which means that we use <distinct> to tag language that is “archaic, technical, dialectal, non-preferred.” In addition to <distinct>, <foreign> and <term> were also particularly important in my encoding of Translation. The WWP also uses the @xml:lang attribute with a value from the IANA language registry to provide standardized identifications for non-English words and phrases.3 This means that my encoding process involves paying attention to the etymology of distinct words and phrases in order to assign each <distinct> or <foreign> element an IANA language code.

For example, in the first letter in Translation, Zāārmilla refers to a character’s “Ayammi Shadee,” which Hamilton defines in a footnote as “the present made to a young woman by her relations during the period of her betrothment” (58). In determining how to encode this term, I first searched for it in the OED—which returned no results. I then searched in Google Books, which brought me to Halhed’s A Code of Gentoo Laws, Hamilton’s original source. Eventually, I determined that “Shadee” must be Hamilton’s (and Halhed’s) version of the Hindi word, shadi, or, marriage.

Example encoding of “Ayammi Shadee.”
Example encoding of “Ayammi Shadee.”

This term stood out to me in the text not only because it was capitalized and footnoted, but also because I did not recognize it. If Hamilton had simply used the word “Marriage” there would be no need to tag it with a more descriptive element, but because the WWP is interested in tagging non-English and linguistically distinct language, I needed to figure out the best way to encode the term. I ended up encoding “Ayammi Shadee” using the element <foreign>, which is used to tag non-English words in cases where there is not another more appropriate element, such as <name>, <persName>, or <placeName>. I also used the @xml:lang attribute with a value of “hi” for Hindi.

As in the example above, one of the challenges of marking up non-English and linguistically distinct terminology in texts like Hamilton’s Translation is that it is sometimes difficult to know when a word is being referenced in the text as a foreign language term, or when the text is using a term that has been adapted into English as a loanword. For example, the English word “pundit” is a loanword from the Sanskrit term “pandit” meaning knowledge owner, or, according to the OED, “a person with knowledge of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, religion, and law.” So, when Halhed includes “Ordinations of the Pundits” in the title of his text, he is referring to a “pundit” as an intermediary who could clarify Indian law for colonial authorities.

It is also difficult to distinguish when a term can accurately be tagged “foreign” or “distinct” (<distinct> is the element we use for linguistically or dialectically distinct terms that are not distinct enough to constitute a ‘foreign” language), since what is considered foreign or distinct to me may not have been foreign or distinct to an eighteenth-century reader. The WWP aims to best represent the documents we encode within the context in which they were written and published, which is part of the reason why the OED is so often a valuable resource for encoders—we wouldn’t want to mark an early modern spelling of a particular word as a typographical error using the elements <sic> and <corr>, for example. But it is also important to recognize that each encoder approaches the encoding process with her own understanding of the text. My choices in marking up the term “Ayammi Shadee” are based on my understanding of the WWP’s encoding practices and my analysis of the text—and these choices will be reviewed by other encoders and may change as Translation moves through our proofing process and into final publication on Women Writers Online.

What I love about working for the WWP is the endlessly evolving way we think about markup, and the collaborative nature of the encoding process. From the many discussions I’ve had in encoding meetings with my WWP colleagues about Hamilton’s Translation, we’ve shifted slightly in our thinking about elements like <distinct>. Ultimately, the complicated way Hamilton uses Hindi- and Sanskrit-derived terms has helped me to think more critically about the linguistic complexity of eighteenth-century colonial writing.


Prototype Visualizations for Cultures of Reception

Prototype Visualizations for Cultures of Reception

We will soon be publishing an exploratory interface for the more than 600 reviews, advertisements, and other periodical items that we’ve encoded for our Cultures of Reception project—which explores how the authors in Women Writers Online were discussed in periodicals from 1770 to 1830. In preparation for that interface, we’re also working with Steven Braun, the Data Analytics and Visualization Specialist in the Northeastern University Library’s Digital Scholarship Group, to set up some visualizations that will help to highlight patterns across the texts in the collection.

Steven recently sent a few prototype visualizations to us and we wanted to share those here, since we’re really excited about them. Essentially, the reviews in Cultures of Reception are tagged by their evaluations, running from “very positive” to “very negative.” The visualizations Steven designed show variations in individual authors’ reception over time by mapping each possible evaluation to an integer value and plotting those evaluations over the course of each author’s lifetime. Positive evaluations are represented by dark green circles (on the upper y-axis), negative evaluations are represented by dark red circles (on the lower y-axis), and partial gradations are colored accordingly in between. Each circle represents a cluster of reception evaluations at that point in time and the size of each circle is proportional to the number of evaluations.

For example, here’s Maria Edgeworth, who was very widely reviewed over a fairly long period of time; her reviews are usually positive, but there are a few negative responses:m_edgeworth-evals

And here’s Charlotte Smith, who received more positive responses overall: c_smith-evals

Mary Darby Robinson, by contrast, has a narrower timeframe, with a particularly notable dip in review positivity around 1800 (in responses to The Natural Daughter):


Finally, here’s the collection as a whole:


When we publish the exploratory interface (which should be very soon!), we’ll be including more evaluation visualizations like these, along with others that will show the geographic ranges of periodicals and reviewed texts, the topics covered in the collection, the circulation of reviews and editions—and quite a few more. So, if you’re interested in the reception of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century women’s texts (or in transatlantic periodical cultures, publication practices, literary circulation, &c.), watch for the publication announcement here and on our website—and, in the meantime, we hope you enjoy these visualizations!