Brendan Cox on his summer internship

Posted on September 13, 2021 by

A number of LEL students spent their summer doing an internship. Manchet will let you hear from some of them, starting with Brendan Cox’s account of his Research Experience Internship.

My Student Experience Internship, led and supervised by Dr Richard Zimmermann, took place over the course of 8 weeks in the summer of 2021. Thanks to COVID-19, I had spent the academic year studying from home in Nottingham, which is where I also undertook my internship. Working remotely from my desk in the spare room, I would coordinate once or twice a day with Richard on Zoom to provide updates on progress or to pose any questions or queries.

In my role, I digitised Middle English texts within the genre of “Saints’ Lives”. My day-to-day work involved using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software on scans provided by Dr Zimmermann, followed by meticulously proofreading the digitised file for any errors that the software had made. In some files, the now archaic thorn ‘þ’ and yogh ‘ȝ’ characters remained, but which the OCR software was only able to recognise (mistakenly) as more contemporary QWERTY characters such as ‘b’, ‘p’, ‘z’ or ‘3’. Other tasks included the transfer of footnotes from the original manuscript to the digital XML file, as well as providing comments on text that was illegible or ambiguous.

The protagonists of these “Saints’ Lives” texts were varied – from Cardinal Wolsey to the martyrs of the Golden Legend – but their stories tended to follow similar patterns and familiar plotlines. As a transcriber, these notable similarities could lead to repetition and predictability. Reading through thousands of lines of text every day was repetitive in itself! However, I never once failed to appreciate the collective importance of these texts.

To the inhabitants of the British Isles at the time, these stories about Saints and Christian festivals were inaccessible because they were written originally in French or Latin. The texts I transcribed – therefore – were often translations, which made them important because they comprised some of the earliest Christian saint lore ever to be written in the English language. Their arrival helped not only to embolden the presence of Christianity in England, but also to serve as a catalyst in the proliferation of an increasingly standardised (and singular) English.

The latter effect was partly a result of the efforts of writers who began to employ the newly invented printing press, such as William Caxton. The “Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye”, translated by Caxton in the mid-15th century, was a text that I transcribed in part toward the latter stages of my internship. Transcribing this particular text made me feel special as it is usually regarded as the first book ever printed in the English language.

On the one hand, I found that transcribing these texts was interesting precisely because of aforementioned religious and linguistic contexts. On the other hand, I also found it interesting because I  was very aware of my role in the chronology of documenting these stories. Throughout history, they have been passed down by word-of-mouth, after which they have been put to paper through the careful handiwork of dedicated scribes. They have often been translated between languages of the world, sometimes losing (or gaining!) nuances along the way. With the technological progress of the printing press, the process of setting these stories to paper was further facilitated, as cursive handwriting became slowly supplanted by standardised typeface. My part to play in the ever-evolving process of documenting these stories was to make them machine-readable. What must be said is that digitising these texts aroused neither new understanding nor neglected nuance. But their fresh availability in digital form is a necessary milestone if linguists today – and in the future – are to be able to conduct data-driven analyses of – and research on – historical English and language change. The words and phrases, painstakingly put to paper with ink and quill over 500 years ago, are now available as searchable texts. For my role in that process, however great or small that may turn out to be, I am very proud.