A Corpus of late 18c Prose

About 300,000 words of local English letters on practical subjects, dated 1761-90.

Background of the project

Historians of English lack good collections of informal material in electronically-readable form from the early part of the late Modern English period, apart from A Representative Corpus of Historical English Registers, ARCHER and Denison’s Corpus of late Modern English Prose, and especially material written by people locally based and unused to writing for publication, which can provide particularly telling evidence. The aim of this project, The English language of the north-west in the late Modern English period, is to help to fill that gap. The material is potentially of interest to linguists and social historians. We have called the present collection of letters A Corpus of late 18c Prose.

† Other corpora have become available since the late 1990s, when this was written.

The project was directed by David Denison in collaboration with Linda van Bergen (from 1998) and Joana Soliva (formerly Proud) (from 1999). Dr van Bergen did the greater part of the work and contributed fully to the planning of the project. We are grateful to the John Rylands Research Institute for two bursaries which enabled Dr van Bergen and Dr Soliva to work part-time to select, transcribe and annotate letters, and to the staff of the John Rylands Library at Deansgate (part of the University of Manchester Library) for their helpfulness throughout. The letters belong to the Leghs of Lyme collection.

Content of corpus, and short sample

The transcribed letters were all written to Richard Orford, a steward of Peter Legh the Younger at Lyme Hall in Cheshire. The summary below is adapted from a report submitted to the ICAME Journal in 2000:

The date range is 1761-90. About 300,000 words have been transcribed and ... corrected. The coding system is based on that used in the original Helsinki Corpus. In selecting letters we have erred on the side of inclusiveness. This means, however, that the material is not uniform, nor is it balanced in its coverage, whether by kind of writer or by topic. For example, there is a good deal of plain ‘business English’ of the late eighteenth century; there are some letters which represent more dialectally marked and uneducated writers; there are some from writers higher up the social scale. Nevertheless there is a lot of good linguistic (and socio-historical) material from local and relatively unselfconscious writers. Here, for instance, is part of a letter from James Grimshaw to Orford, written in 1779 (line-breaks omitted here):

There has not been such Mobing this maney many years as at this time there is ab a Mob at this present time that is puling down all the Carding and Spining Machines that go by water, three is {*} allready pul'd Down

Or in 1790:

I have sent about Mrs.. Hancocks Boxes and there is no boxes come for her. — Molley sends 12 bottles of Vinegar. — We have this Day had the vilantest storm of rain and hale I ever seed; attended with Lightening and Thunder the Lightning killed us two Cows Just by the corner of the Garden; which I leave to you to aquant Mr. Legh of. —

I have also made available a slightly longer sample taken from the actual HTML files. Linda van Bergen and I have written a short paper for a symposium in Newcastle in which we discuss the selection and coding of material; see my papers for download.

Some discoveries in the corpus

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Fátima Faya found the then earliest known modern uses of the elliptical adverb or interjection please without following to-infinitive:

You'l please return the apointment that I may destroy it (1775, I. Hodson)
(Please see over) (1778, James Hammond)
Please Remembar mee to my Ant and All my Cosins and My Uncall Iohn (1789, John Mercer)

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid & Fátima María Faya Cerqueiro. 2007. Saying please in Late Modern English. In Javier Pérez-Guerra, Dolores González-Álvarez, Jorge L Bueno-Alonso & Esperanza Rama-Martínez (eds.), 'Of varying insight and opposing creed': New insights into Late Modern English (Linguistic Insights. Studies in Language and Communication 28), 421-44. Bern, etc: Peter Lang.

Not only did these examples antedate OED2 by over a century (s.v. please v. 6c), they may support a different syntactic origin from that proposed by OED. (OED3 has now found examples from 1771 under the new headword please adv. and int.)

David Denison has antedated by over 40 years the use of of as a verb for standard have (OED3 s.v. of v., 1814- )

the servant to the old Lady I sho~ld not of thought of after what had past (1773, Ann Legh)
I should be very happey to of seen mrs. Orford at Leek (?1774, D. Langham)

See my plenary paper (2007d) at the Bristol ‘Language from Below’ conference.

File format

The corpus is currently in two forms: plain text with COCOA-style annotations, like the Helsinki Corpus (one file, 1.6 Mb), and HTML (three linked files, 804-909 Kb, plus a coding description, 6 Kb). The files are extended (8-bit) Ascii (ANSI/Windows default coding), and the text is coded as far as possible according to the conventions used in the Helsinki Corpus, that is, with COCOA-style brackets giving information on writer, date, page breaks, etc, enclosed within carets. If any scholar would like to request a different coding, such as SGML, or indeed to produce one themself, please get in touch with David Denison at david.denison@manchester.ac.uk. We have had an offer to convert the text to TEI (Text Encoding Initiative-conformant) XML; if this happens, I will let current users know.

Copyright and access

The Corpus of late 18c Prose is available without fee for educational and research purposes, but it is not in the public domain. Copyright to the text is retained by the John Rylands University Library of Manchester; copyright to the annotated files is retained by David Denison and Linda van Bergen ( 2002).

The Corpus has been lodged with the Oxford Text Archive and you can get the text from the OTA over the Internet at no cost after completing their written application form. Scholars can also get the corpus from me – once they agree formally to the conditions of use by filling out the access request form and returning it via e-mail to David Denison (david.denison@manchester.ac.uk). I then mail a zip file containing plain-text and HTML versions of the corpus. Click here for the access request form.

If you have further queries about the corpus, please ask me by e-mail at david.denison@manchester.ac.uk.

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Page last updated 21 January 2020, previously 27 March 2019, 26 October 2016