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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