Early “English” Books Online?

Early English Books Online, or EEBO, is what might be technically known as “a hot mess”. (If you’re unfamiliar with EEBO and its messiness, I highly recommend Ian Gadd’s “The Use and Misuse of Early English Books Online” which summarizes how we arrived at this hot mess, Sarah Werner’s blogpost on the kinds of things EEBO doesn’t show us well, and Daniel Powell’s roundup of EEBO weirdness). I want to stress that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it’s a product of time and technology from a while ago.  It’s being rekeyed by humans (the TCP enterprise), and overall it is just a really big dataset of Early Modern English. When you’re looking at giant datasets like EEBO it doesn’t really matter if parts of it are imperfect. It will always be imperfect.

I’ve been looking at spelling variation for various gender terms and collocational patterns surrounding gender terms in EEBO lately  because it is a really big dataset and those tend to be useful for testing our perceptions of language, especially when they contain a number of different kinds of texts. One of the ones I was looking at was hir, a known variable spelling of her. One example of this is can be found in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor (V.ii.2150);  Melchiori’s Arden Shakespeare edition has a note about the phrase “his muffler”: the Folio edition of Wives reads his, but the Quarto edition read “her muffler”. This “may be Evans’ confusion, but more likely Shakespeare’s slip or a printer’s misreading of ‘hir’, an alternative spelling of her” (2000: 253).

So in looking for examples of hir I found myself suddenly looking at Welsh. Specifically, this text, Ymadroddion bucheddol ynghylch marvvolaeth o waith Dr. Sherlock (all links will go to the Michigan Text Creation Partnership permalinks, for ease of reference. Because I’m based the UK, my access comes from JISC Historic Ebooks, not the Chadwyck interface, meaning that generated permalinks might not work – further problems!). The below image is from the ‘text’ option on the JISC interface for Ymadroddion:

Screen shot 2013-08-27 at 12.46.01I don’t speak – or read – Welsh, let alone Early Modern Welsh, so I turned first to google translate and secondly to twitter, where I joyfully found a number of people who either work with or speak/read Welsh (and one person who studied Medieval Welsh in undergrad – officially winning the title of ‘most obscure gen ed ever’. The internet continues to amaze.)

In welsh, hir means ‘long’, so it’s not a pronoun but an adjective. I was curious about the structures of grammatical gender in Welsh, namely if it would have agreement by gender in ways that Old English, for example, did. This answer was a little bit more complicated to elucidate but it was declared that yes, there is a gender system in Welsh; and no, it should not affect hir. [1] So, that’s good to know. But here’s a question: When we say ‘Early English Books (Online)’, do we really mean English the place, or English the language?

Linguistically, Welsh is rather decidedly not English, as the extremely useful BBC Modern Welsh Grammar  will illustrate. But I was rather surprised to find Welsh being considered part of “English” in this set. So, I went back to the EEBO-TCP site , where they say the following about text selection:

  • Selection is based on the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (NCBEL). Works are eligible to be encoded if the name of their author appears in NCBEL. Anonymous works may also be selected if their titles appear in the bibliography. The NCBEL was chosen as a guideline because it includes foundational works as well as less canonical titles related to a wide variety of fields, not just literary studies.

  • In general, we prioritize selection of first editions and works in English (although in the past we have also tackled Latin and Welsh texts). Because our funding is limited, we aim to key as many different works as possible, in the language in which our staff has the most expertise. However, exceptions for specific works may be made upon request.

  •  A work will not be passed over for encoding simply because it is available in another electronic collection. Not only is the quality of these collections sometimes uncertain, a text’s presence outside of EEBO will not allow it to be searched through the same interface as the EEBO encoded texts.

  • Titles requested by users at partner institutions are placed at the head of the production queue.

There is quite a lot of Latin in EEBO, because it was in some ways considered a prestige language in the earlier early modern period. Many early printed books were in Latin, so it is generally unsurprising that there’s a lot of it in the EEBO set. Again, this is not English-the-language but English-The-Place. Curiously, the place of imprinting for Ymadroddion bucheddol ynghylch marwolaeth o waith Dr. Sherlock is listed as “gan Leon Lichfield, i John March yn Cat-Eaten-Street, ag i Charles Walley yn Aldermanbury, […] yn Llundain” [by Leon Lichfield, John March-Eaten-in Cat Street, with Charles Walley in Aldermanbury, London], suggesting that “English” refers to place rather than strictly language- and it gets the following metadata:

Publication Country : England
Language : Welsh


Scotland joins with England in 1603 when James VI, King of Scotland inherits the throne to become James I, King of England, but the two countries remain largely independent states until the Acts of Union in 1707. But would we find examples of Scots in EEBO? Scots, like Welsh, is an example of another localized language, though arguably Scots gets more English influence. Kirk is a nice Scots word meaning ‘church’, and here’s an example from William Dunbar’s The tua mariit wemen and the wedo. And other poems from around 1507:

Screen shot 2013-08-27 at 12.39.11Curiously, this is listed in the records as

Publication Country: Scotland
Language: English

As above, I’m not sure everyone would agree that this is “English”. Nor is it printed in “England”.  But these books (and more) are there as part of Early English Books Online.

[1] Thanks to Jonathan Morris (@jonmorris83), a marketing assistant at Palgrave Linguistics, Alun Withey (@DrAlun), Liz Edwards (@eliz_edw) and Sarah Courtney (@sgcourtney)



  1. Nice exploration of the diversity of languages in EEBO and EEBO-TCP! But the key to this issue, I think, is to remember that EEBO and EEBO-TCP are two different things, with the second an independently selected subset of the first. EEBO contains many works in languages other than English. As the site says: “Early English Books Online (EEBO) contains digital facsimile page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700”. In contrast, if I’m reading you correctly, TCP’s criteria for transcription seems to focus more on the language of English. It won’t help you in terms of adding to your corpora at the moment, but if you’re looking for more works in Welsh, Scots, Algonquin, or, indeed, other non-English languages or dialects, you can find them by searching in EEBO rather than TCP.

    1. Sarah, you’re absolutely right about this. There’s some Latin that sneaks into the EEBO-TCP corpus, especially in the earlier texts… I’m really intrigued by the fact that language and place seem to be vying for positions in the definition of “English” being used here, which might be adding to the continued mess of EEBO and EEBO-TCP texts (and, of course, the confusion in addressing them).

  2. As far as I can tell, the language metadata from TCP-EEBO is coming from the STC catalogs – it’s generated by the folks who actually encoded the XML. So there are bound to be mistaken labels where things get fuzzy. The same happens with a lot of ‘illegible’ tags that would be obvious to any early modern scholar but were ambiguous to the person who encoded. Language detection might be applicable on limited scale to throw up these borderline cases.

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