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Unique corpus gives a voice to England’s laboring poor

Because the laboring poor in Late Modern England were rarely literate, their stories have been told almost exclusively by a privileged minority of educated authors and playwrights. A research project led by dhCenter member Anita Auer aims to change that. (Lead image : Petition letter, reused with permission of the Cumbria Archive Centre, Barrow-in-Furness (Ref: BPR10O52).

The LALP project (Language of the Labouring Poor in Late Modern England) is based on a corpus of some 2,000 letters, which were handwritten by English paupers during the mid-18th and early 19th centuries to petition for economic relief under the nation’s Old Poor Law.

Because compulsory elementary education was not established in England until 1880, the writers of these letters were often semi-literate. Therefore, the unique spelling and syntactical patterns and phonetic representations of speech found in the letters, curated by independent researcher Tony Fairman, reveal how their writers may have sounded.

According to LALP project leader Anita Auer, the digitization and standardization of these letters provides an unprecedented opportunity to listen, for the first time in language history, to the voices of a working class that have never before been heard – despite the fact that it comprised some 80% of the population in Late Modern England.

Facsimile of a petition letter, reused with permission of the Cumbria Archive Centre, Barrow-in-Furness (Ref: BPR10O52).

Transcription of the facsimile above, with examples of phonetic spelling (e.g. Dun ‘done’; Sum thing ‘something’), which indicate that the writer had a Northern English pronunciation © LALP/Anita Auer

Balancing digital and human approaches

Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the LALP project runs from 2020-2024. In that time, the project members – experts in historical and corpus linguistics – aim to transcribe the letters, convert them to digital format, and organize them in a searchable database for the academic community.

Auer, a professor of English linguistics at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), says that creating such a database will require a combination of software and human problem-solving.

“The work has some elements of forensic linguistics, including matching handwriting and language use. One of the tools used by the project members is the VARD variance recognition software that helps us normalize spelling. But in other cases, we still rely on close reading skills. For example, ‘I am’ may be written ‘I ham’, as the letter-writer wishes to avoid the stigma of sounding lower class by dropping their hs. But a computer would still assume this means ‘ham’!”

The sheer amount of variation the letters contain is also a challenge: a given word may be spelled any number of ways. Moreover, those unable to write would often engage a friend or relative to compose the petition for them, adding another layer of complexity to demographic metadata such as age and gender.

Towards a normalized version of the petition letter using VARD software. The highlighted forms indicate recognized spelling variants. Interestingly, the word Right ‘write’ was not recognized, as Right exists in Standard English orthography. While the option of automatic normalization exists, manual checking, corrections, and training is necessary. © LALP/Anita Auer

A voice on the page

Despite the onset of the pandemic, Auer and her team have painstakingly analyzed and converted all the letters to plain text with relevant metadata. Going forward, she hopes that by using digital humanities and corpus linguistics tools, she and her team will be able to compare how the laboring poor spoke compared to the middling and elite members of society.

Another goal is to better understand how the introduction of grammar rules during this period created language ideologies that dictated which pronunciations were associated with sounding rich and educated, or poor and illiterate.

“When it comes to pronunciation, we can see for example that some letter-writers were aware that dropping their hs was ‘bad’, which is why they would sometimes re-insert them. But they did not appear to care about grammar rules such as double negation or preposition placement.”

Auer says that the letters also provide a unique opportunity to take a precise philological approach to this kind of linguistic research, as most previous projects have been carried out by historians, who have different research aims with this kind of data and therefore sometimes introduce edits to transcriptions to make the petitions more legible.

“In sociolinguistics, we are always interested in the social impact of research. This will be the first time we can make a contribution of this kind to understanding the sociolinguistic history of English.”