Basic Conventions for Transcription

Conventions of presentation are required to enable you accurately to represent a manuscript text, either for your own record, or when you quote from a manuscript source in scholarly work. Unless you never work without a computer you should develop a set of conventions which work both within a word processor and in your own handwriting. A transcription is not an edition; its aim is to record the appearance of the text in the manuscript. The conventions given here are guidelines; in many cases there is a choice.

Our discussion below is in parts necessarily fairly technical, and will likely require application and regular resort before it can be properly digested. It is divided into a number of sections: (i) Contraction and Abbreviation, (ii) Different Scripts, (iii) Letter Forms to Look Out For, (iv) Punctuation Marks to Look Out For, (v) Advice on Conventions, and (vi) Suggested Conventions. The beginner will want to take in as much as possible at a first reading, and then return to this guide again after some experience with manuscripts. The Suggested Conventions, in particular, should prove abidingly useful.

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The two standard methods of abbreviation are contraction, the omission of medial letters (e.g. can't for 'cannot' or Dr for 'Doctor'); and suspension, the omission of terminal letters (e.g. etc. for 'et cetera', L. 'and the rest'). In addition to these ancient methods, early modern scribes used a host of special marks to make writing more efficient, and as tools facilitating right-justification of text. The most important of these common practices are discussed below.

superscript characters, often a form of contraction which may imply preceding omitted characters, as in wch for 'which'. Other common contractions of this type include yr for 'your' or 'yowr'; Sr for 'Sir' and Mr for 'Master'; wt or wth for 'with' (and wthout for 'without'); maty for 'maiesty' or maties for 'maiesties'; and words ending in -mt for '-ment', such as gouernemt for 'gouernement' or parliamt for 'parliament'. There are many others, which to some degree may depend on the idiosyncrasies of the scribe; make sure that, wherever possible, your expansions are consistent with the scribe's own orthographical habits (such as expanding yor as 'yowr' when the scribe prefers vocalic w to u).

brevigraphs, such as '&' (or other characters meaning the same) for and or Latin et (as in '&c.' for etc.). The most important of such forms is the terminal -es graph, which generally indicates the plural ending 'es', but which can also, depending on the scribe's orthographical preferences, call for 'is', 'ys', or even just 's' (in later usage, for example, you may see an -es graph attached to a word already ending in e, such as 'house'; in this case, it would of course be ridiculous to transcribe the word as 'housees'). Another fairly common graph is the 'sur' abbreviation, which resembles German scharfes s, ß; this usually appears in initial position and can represent 'sur', 'ser', 'sir', 'sar', or even 'sor'. A common graph in theological manuscripts is majuscule X (really Greek chi) for 'Christ-' in such words as 'Christian' or 'Christianity' (this is, of course, the ancestor of modern ad-speak, 'Xmas').

tildes, generally implying omitted letters, as in the suspended form occasiõ for 'occasion'. Most often tildes stand in for missing (particularly a doubled) m or n, as in mãne, sûme, or begîn(e); in this usage, it is important to remember, too, that many scribes continued to use tildes in such instances through force of habit, and the supplying of a letter may often not make sense in a local context, or will turn out to be inconsistent with the way the same scribe spells the same word in other contexts (a tilde over the word cõme, for example, often will not require expansion). A tilde can also indicate the need to supply a vowel-t-vowel combination in words with Latin roots, such as rõne for 'ratione' or 'lrã' for 'litera' (a common derivative of which, in Elizabethan secretary hands, is lrê for 'lettre'); in contexts where the writer prefers a -c- spelling to a -t- spelling, you will of course need to transcribe 'racione', etc. An important offshoot of this very formal type of tilde usage, which is much more commmon in the Elizabethan and Jacobean secretary/mixed hands, is the habit of using a tilde to replace the i after t or c in -tion or -cion endings; you will often see, for example, reuocacõn or instruccõn, for which you should transcribe 'reuocacion' and 'instruccion'.

p abbreviations: a variety of ornamented p forms implying such syllables as per, par, pre, prae, pro, etc. In strict usage, there are important if subtle distinctions in the type of ornament applied to the p, each of which calls for a different syllabic expansion. The usual distinctions, imported into English usage from the Latin, depend on the nature of the crossbar applied to the descender of the p: if the bar is straight or convex, you are (probably) dealing with 'par' or 'per', whereas if the bar is concave, you are more likely to be looking at 'pro' or possibly 'pr(a)e'. 'Pre' in the Elizabethan secretary hand was most often rendered by p joined to a supralineal r loop (see below).

the r loop: a very common form of abbreviation appropriated from medieval Latin usage, often used in combination with p for the 'pre' syllable, and for 'er' in such contracted or suspended forms as 'uniuersitie', 'gouernement', and 'man(n)er'. Hector (The Handwriting of English Documents, p. 31) describes this supralineal mark of abbreviation as 'a backward curve terminating in a bold pendent comma', the form of which may often (especially in a rapid hand) be difficult to distinguish from superscript r in such abbreviations as honor or color; in such instances, how you represent the expanded form in a semi-diplomatic transcription may boil down to a question of personal judgment, but you should strive, at the least, to be consistent in your practice.

other abbreviations: e.g. superscript li, s, d for pounds, shillings, and pence (Latin librae, solidi, denarii); the li sign, sometimes crossed, was later formalised as the pound sign, £. It is fairly common, in words ending in -aunt or -aunce, to find that the 'a' or possibly the 'au' has been rendered above the line with a mark looking something like a u topped by a cross-stroke (really a fourteenth-century form of minuscule a, though sometimes reduced to nothing more than a serrated line); you may thus encounter examples such as tenant or tenaunt, which may be all the more difficult to recognize because the lineal forms of u and n are identical (i.e. a mass of minims). Other words commonly contracted in this way include 'graunt', 'gouernaunce', and 'maintenaunce'. There are a range of comparatively rare graphs, imported from medieval Latin, that stand in for syllables such as 'com'/'con', 'rum', 'ter', and 'us'; for the forms of these, see Petti (English Literary Hands), pp. 23-24.

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Scribes will often write in one script, with titles, headings, proper nouns, etc. emphasised by another script. Typically, the text will be in secretary hand, with occasional use of italic. In many cases, a third script, some sort of engrossing book hand, will be used for titles and headings. It is important to distinguish these different scripts in your transcription.

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u/v, U/V From the 1630s onwards, printers started to use the u letter-form (or 'graph') to denote the vowel, and the v graph to denote the consonant. Before this time there was only one recognised letter of the alphabet, which could be written or printed in two ways. This is why the letter w is not called 'double-v'. Printers before the 1630s used v initially (at the start of a word) and u medially. So unto was spelled 'vnto' and even was spelled 'euen'. If you encountered 'uery' you might surmise that an initial e was missing from the word every since very would be spelled 'very'. Practice in manuscript was never this consistent, with u and v graphs being used for both consonant and vowel, both initially and medially. Ambiguities caused by this system can make life difficult for the student of early modern documents, though they could also be exploited, as with Shakespeare's use of the word 'proud' in sonnet 129 as printed in 1609, which is in the system then current both proud and prov'd. It is important that you don't lose information by deciding too soon whether a u or v graph encountered is the vowel or consonant. Your job in transcribing is to report exactly what is there in the manuscript, so u and v forms must be distinguished from each other and not silently or unconsciously brought into line with modern practice.
i/j, I A different case is the letter j. As late as the nineteenth century, some still insisted that it was just a variant form of the letter i, which could represent both a vowel and a consonant. But many in our period tried to use the j form for a consonant and the i for a vowel. Again, your job is to record what you see, which will in most cases be a letter i. In the first half of the period the only common occurrence of the j will be in sequences of roman numerals, where it was used terminally: 'xiij' for xiii. As the period goes on, j-consonant (e.g. justice, rejoyce) becomes increasingly common. Where upper-case (or 'majuscule') letters are concerned, there is only one letter form in manuscripts of this period, a capital I. Though it will often look like a J, it should always be transcribed as 'I'.
y, þ The now obsolete letter þ (known as 'thorn') was still used in this period to represent a 'th' sound. Most often it looks exactly like a y, and it is in this form that it is to this day misunderstood in countless establishments with names like 'ye olde tea shoppe'. When you see 'yat' you are looking at 'þat' and should transcribe it as 'that', on the understanding that þ consistently represents 'th'.
-es As described above, the terminal -es graph is very common; it looks like an outsize italic e, often descending well below the line. It represents terminal 'es' (or, less commonly, 'is', 'ys', or simply 's') and should be transcribed as such.

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/ Known as a 'virgule' and used as we use a full-stop; it became largely obsolete in print in our period but was still used in manuscripts and should be recorded using the 'forward slash' character
" You will not see inverted commas used as we use them, though you may see them used to mark memorable sententia. You may occasionally see marks such as lunulae, ( ), used as we would use quotation marks
' The possessive apostrophe is not consistently used in this period. Apostrophes begin to be used consistently to mark elision in poetry (monosyllabic rais'd versus disyllabic raised, more often in modern editions converted to raised and raisèd respectively), but in the earlier part of the period it is more usual simply to omit letters without marking them (raisd versus raised). You will on occasion see apostrophes used (to our eyes incorrectly) for plurals. Transcribe what is there and do not attempt to correct or regularise.
, : ; . The rules for syntax were based on the classical period, a long sentence built on a hierarchy of three: a single period divided into a number of large units called cola (sing. colon), themselves divided into commata (sing. comma). The punctuation marks which we now name after these three syntactical units are often used to mark their divisions (what is called rhetorical punctuation), though most often rather unsystematically. The semi-colon will also be seen, though much less often, and many manuscript writers punctuate very sparsely. (As a rule, professional scribes and printers were more systematic than others.) Again, you must transcribe what you see, with the understanding that not only is the system of punctuation different to that now in use, but also the system will be understood and applied differently, and indeed misunderstood and ignored, by different writers.
= Often used as a hyphen; the simplest practice is to state that it has been replaced by '-'
- Various marks known as line-fillers will often be seen at the end of a line of prose in order to fill up blank space and give an illusion of right-justification. These may be ignored.

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We teach semi-diplomatic transcription. A diplomatic transcription copies everything it sees as it is, giving 'wch' for 'wch'. A semi-diplomatic transcription makes a number of changes in the interests of clarity and readability, including, in this example, expanding 'wch' to 'which'. There follow a number of conventional methods of indicating what the transcriber has done, and some advice on good practice.

xxx scribal contractions expanded and supplied letters italicised [strictly speaking a contraction is distinguished from a suspension in the larger family of abbreviations - contractions: superscript, e.g. 'with' for 'wth' / tilde, e.g. 'innocent' for 'iñocent'; suspensions, e.g. 'occasion' for 'occasiõ']
[xxx] or ‹xxx› supplied by editor [letters omitted without mark of contraction, e.g. '-con' for -cion; also letters omitted by mistake, and punctuation supplied by transcriber if absolutely necessary]
{...} letters lost through blot, or cropped page, or illegible [supply text, or number of dots = number of lost letters]
‹xxx› or [xxx] text deleted in MS [again, supply the text if possible, or dots for letters]
xxx or \xxx/ text inserted by the scribe either between the lines, or in the margins
///xxx/// or xxx text in italics or other script [how to indicate this clearly will depend upon the extent of use of contractions and virgules; another convention may be needed]
xxx text in engrossing hand [where, for example, ///xxx/// is already in use to distinguish text in italic]

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There follows a sample statement of conventions. It describes the conventions we use in the transcriptions in this course.


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This page is edited by Andrew Zurcher, and was last updated on .

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