Jane Austen and James Stanier Clarke

If you are interested in what this satirical print has to do with Jane Austen – read the following article, which has just come out:

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (2015), Jane Austen’s correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, in Anglistentag 2014 Hannover, Proceedings, ed. by Rainer Emig and Jana Gohrisch. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag. 79-90.

Small hint: you will find the image in the Wikipedia entry on James Stanier Clarke. The key question is: would Jane Austen have known about its existence?

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Belle van Zuylen’s letters

The Belle van Zuylen Correspondence project is looking for volunteers to transcribe the letters (most of which are in French). Look at their blog (in Dutch) for more information.

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Periphrastic do and Colonial Lag

And since she sent me both blogposts all at once, here is Esther Spaanderman’s second one, also on the Adams Papers: “But as I speak french very imperfectly and she understands not a syllable of English I suppose she did … Continue reading

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Dont vs. don’t: early American usage?

Esther Spaanderman is the last of my students who owes us her blogposts. Here is the first one:

John Adams (Wikipedia)

A while ago, I studied periphrastic do in the letters of John Adams (1735-1826), the second president of the United States. As I was interested in colonial lag, I compared a selection of Adams’ letters to letters by a British contemporary, Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Walpole has already been the subject of other posts in this blog.

Walpole (Wikipedia)

One of the linguistic differences I observed in the writings of Walpole and Adams concerns the spelling of the contraction of do not. Adams consistently used a contracted form, whereas Walpole rarely did so. The sample of the Adams correspondence I analysed contained eighteen instances of a contraction of do not, but spelled as dont. In Walpole’s correspondence I found only two instances of the contraction, spelled don’t. According to the OED, the form without the apostrophe has been in use since the 1700s, though from the 1800s onwards it came to be was regarded as non-standard. As for don’t, the OED indicated that this form, which is now the standard, has been in use since 1600.

I noticed in the OED entry on do is that the quotations with dont mostly appear in American sources. One quotation from 1670, for example, is from the Rhode Island Historical Society Collections, and another from the Journal and letters, 1767–1774 by the American Philip Vickers Fithian. This made me wonder whether dont might be somehow associated with early American English. So far, I have been unable to find any evidence for this assumption, but perhaps readers of this blog can help me here. So please let me know if you have ever come across dont (without the apostrophe) in Early or Late Modern English texts. Would it indeed  be possible that dont is more common in American texts? Please leave a comment.

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In Search of Jane Austen reviewed

I’ve just, that is, on the first day of ICEHL-19 in Essen, been told about yet another review of the book, by Nuria Calvo Cortés from the Universdad Complutense de Madrid. The review appeared in the journal Atlantis, and (to my delight) is freely available online.

For those readers interested in the language of Jane Austen’s letters: here is the first review of the book that has come out, in LinguistList.

A second review appeared on 15 July 2015 in the journal Women’s Writing, by Jane Hodson from the University of Sheffield.

And here is a third one, by Katie Halsey from the University of Stirling. It appeared in the Autumn issue of The BARS Review (no. 46).

And if you wish to read more about the language of the letters, see the proceedings of the most recent Anglistentag (Hanover, 2014).

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Excitement or illiteracy?

Here is Sopio Zhgenti’s second blogpost, once again on Virginia Woolf:

Virginia Woolf (source: Wikipedia)

The previous blog post I wrote was about Virginia Woolf and the nicknames she used with people close to her. This time, I would like to continue talking about Virginia and discuss some of the spelling peculiarities that I encountered while studying her letters. It is striking that Virginia in her correspondence with her brother Thoby Stephen omitted apostrophes, whereas in the letters addressed to her half-brother George Duckworth, she did use them. Closer observation showed that apostrophes were most frequently omitted in negative contracted auxiliary verbs. See the examples below:

Letters to Thoby Stephen:

Thoby Stephen (source: Wikipedia)

  • “I dont know to what species he belongs, but he is very well bred and a great beauty Jack says” (L. 9 1897)
  • “However I shant know till we meet at Fritham. I will tell Jack about it if he comes tonight.” (L. 36. 1901)
  • “I am so penetrated with Dotty’s [Dorothea’s] style of conversation that I cant help writing exactly like her.” (L. 10, 1897)
  • “I was so much more impressed by him than I thought I should be, that I read Cymbeline just to see if there mightnt be more in the great William than I supposed.” (L. 39, 1901)
  • “the little King wont have it done, and his mother tries to make him forget and asks him to ride with her in the Park” (L. 39, 1901)
  • “And MacKail isnt so precious as I thought”(L.40 1902)

Letters to George Duckworth:

  • You don’t say what your address at Porto Fino is, so I shall have to send this after you to Rome. (L.12. 1898)
  • Father is stretched at full length snoring on the sofa, and this annoys me so much that I can’t write sense. (L.29. 1900)

What would be the reason for these differences? I don’t think the omission of apostrophes is caused by her illiteracy, as she used correct forms in the letters addressed to George. Moreover, despite the fact that Virginia did not receive any formal education, she had been taught by her father Leslie Stephen. I would therefore expect Virginia to have been aware of rules such as when to use the apostrophe, and therefore find it quite difficult to find an explanation for this difference in usage, except that Virginia had a very close relationship with Thoby and seemed always very excited while writing to him. She wrote many long letters to him, and this excitement may be why, for one reason or another, the correct use of the apostrophe seemed to matter less to her. But I’d be interested to hear about other possible suggestions.



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The Adams Family Papers

The Adams Family is a popular topic in this blog. Here is another blogpost on them, Martijn Slokker’s last one: 

Abigail Adams (source: wikipedia)

John Adams (source: wikipedia)

When I wrote my course paper, I worked with the Adams Family Papers, an electronic archive which contains (among other things) the correspondence between John Adams (1735-1826) and his wife Abigail (1744-1818). As a farewell to the course I thought I’d write a short review of the archive and its usefulness as a tool for academic research.

The collection, which is held by the Massachusetts Historical Society, numbers over 1,100 letters, written between 1762 and 1801. The vast majority of the letters in the archive are original letters as received by the addressee. However, there are also a few letterbook copies and draft letters, as well as an 18th-century transcript of a letter. The status of the letters is always marked, making it easy to determine what type of letter you are dealing with.

The archive is divided into six parts that mark important periods in the John Adams’ life:

  • 1762-1774, letters written during courtship and early legal career
  • 1774-1777, letters written during Continental Congress
  • 1778-1779, letters written during the diplomatic mission to France
  • 1779-1789, letters written during diplomatic missions to Europe
  • 1789-1796, letters written during vice presidency
  • 1796-1801, letters written during presidency

The letters are listed in chronological order in each of these sections and it is also possible to display lists with only John’s or Abigail’s letters. Furthermore, the archive has a handy search function, which allows you to find specific words and phrases you may be researching.

The letters themselves are presented in two forms: a transcription and an image of the original document. The transcriptions appear to follow the original documents as closely as possible, including capitalization, non-standard spellings, strike-throughs and insertions, although it is mentioned that certain changes have been made in order to improve legibility; this includes punctuation changes and shorthand being expanded. The transcriptions further include supplied text in the following format: [blue text in brackets]. This format is used to clarify, correct and complete passages and can be a useful tool when studying the letters as it provides the reader with information that may not have been available otherwise.

Unfortunately, there are also ways in which the transcriptions do not match the original manuscripts: the line breaks do not match and, while the transcriptions in general match the original documents very well, I did encounter some problems with missing self-corrections. I will give an example of this below.

“It began raining hard about two hours before we reach’d the city, continued through the Night, and all day yesterday, a mere flood.” (Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 19 February 1801)

This is the transcription as it appears in the archive. However, if you look at the original manuscript (4th line from the bottom of the page), you can see that originally the text read as follows: “it began raining hard about? / about two hours before we reach’d the city, continued through the / Night, and all day yesterday, a mere flood”. The transcription does not include the erased about, which looks as though it was either struck out because it was misspelled or because it did not fit on the line properly.

I found several of these transcription errors in the archive. The most frequent mistakes seem to occur with insertions that are not marked as such in the transcriptions, which was unfortunate since self-corrections were the topic of my paper.

Overall, I think the Adams Family Papers electronic archive an excellent resource for the study of letters; however, it appears you cannot always rely on the transcriptions when studying specific letter writing features like self-corrections. Luckily the archive always provides you with the original manuscripts in cases like this. Using these manuscripts is more time consuming of course, but it does allow you to work as accurately as possible. My list of pros and cons for using the archive looks as follow:


  • Easy navigation
  • Search function
  • Original manuscripts are available alongside the transcriptions
  • Transcriptions attempt to be true to the original letters
  • Archive indicates what type of letter you are dealing with
  • Archive fully accessible to everyone who is interested


Transcriptions are sometimes not 100% accurate

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