Friday, 20 February 2015

On bard-induced bloglessness

A few correspondents have asked what has happened to my blog, as there have been no posts for a while. The answer is simple, and consists of two words: Shakespeare dictionaries.

It was rather unkind of Shakespeare to have two anniversaries in such close proximity: the 450th of the birth in 2014 and the 400th of the death in 2016. The result was an astronomical growth in the Shakespeare industry, with publishers vying to get their books out in good time. The interest will disappear on 24 April next year, I imagine - until the next big anniversary comes along (2023, the First Folio).

I was caught up in this flurry, and still am, having accepted commissions for two new dictionaries. The first is almost out: an Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary for schools, co-written with Ben Crystal and stunningly illustrated by Kate Bellamy, published by OUP next month. This contains some 4000 of the words students find difficult, taken from the 12 most popular plays studied in schools. We've devised some new thesaural features for it and spent a lot of time creating contextual explanations, adding theatre notes, and the like. It's been a lot of fun.

And later in the year, I will say that the second dictionary was a lot of fun - but not right now, while I'm still slogging through it. This is going to be the Oxford Dictionary of Shakespearean Pronunciation (also OUP) - a response to the extraordinary demand for OP materials that has emerged over the past couple of years. At least three plays are being performed in OP this year - Pericles (just happened in Stockholm, performed by Ben's Shakespeare Ensemble), The Merchant of Venice in Baltimore in March at the Shakespeare Factory, and Henry 5 at the Globe in July (Ben's Ensemble again). I've had hints of other productions from correspondents. And everyone is clamouring for help, in the form of recordings or transcriptions. The aim of the OP Dictionary is to enable people to cope with OPs for themselves. It will contain every word in the First Folio, along with the evidence from spellings and rhymes, so that people can see how I arrived at my recommendations. It's been a project that, on and off, I've been engaged in for the past ten years, but the last year has seen it come to the boil.

And when dictionaries approach boiling point, everything else that is optional stops. Dictionary compilation (and, I recall, encyclopedia compilation) is unlike any other kind of writing, as you are in the hands of an impassive and uncaring force: the alphabet. With an 'ordinary' book, the author is in control. I can choose how much to include or exclude. With a dictionary, you have to reach letter Z before you are done, and leave nothing out. If the aim is to include all words in the First Folio, then that is an absolute: no tolerances are possible. So, as one slogs through the big letters - C, P, and the gigantic S... - there is no time or energy available for luxuries such as blog posting. It would perhaps be different if I were blogging casually, on everyday topics. But my blog has always been a reactive one, responding to linguistic questions that I am sent. I choose topics where the answers are not already easily available online or in the literature, and so the posts are mini-research projects, with some taking many hours to write. That luxury disappeared towards the end of last year - in the middle of letter S, as I remember.

All being well, I hope to finish the OP Dictionary around Easter-time, and expect to resume posting then. In the meantime, for those who noticed my bloglessness, thank you for asking.

11 comments:

John Cowan said...

Looking at Project Gutenberg's First Folio, I count almost 27,000 distinct words. Of course, some of them are just variant spellings. That's a huge job: how many of you are working on it?

DC said...

Just me. With some help from Hilary, as we reach the copy-editing stage. It's been a long haul, all right. I downloaded an e-version of the FF on 12 December 2004 and had a programmer do an alphabetical word-sort. The spelling task has been to analyse the variants into lexemes, which will incidentally allow a precise lexeme-count rather than the less interesting word-count which - depending on what words are counted and what is considered to be a word - ends up in the high 20 thousands, as you say. A lexeme count will be well below 20K. (Actually, my final total will be a bit of an underestimate, as I won't have time, if I'm to meet my deadline, to go through looking for phrasal verbs, which would be a tricky study in itself.) I do however give frequencies for all variants.

But the primary aim of the exercise wasn't to arrive at a total, interesting though that is, but to provide the evidence for OP that comes from the spellings. A lot of the time the counts aren't illuminating, from an OP point of view, but I did them anyway, as I think they will be of interest in their own right, for reasons nothing to do with OP. People often ask me frequency questions that I've been unable to answer until now. But the spelling exercise has been invaluable in helping me sharpen OP. I'd no idea exactly how much evidence spelling would provide for OP until I did the survey. I know now.

NP said...

'Shakespeare made me do it.'
A likely story! ;-)

John Cowan said...

Sorting forms into lexemes is certainly tricky: when is "I" a token of I, when of aye 'yes', and when (if ever) of ay(e) 'ever', for example?

DC said...

That example isn't so tricky, actually. All one has to do is check out each instance, and it turns out that the various senses of 'I' are clearly distinguishable in context. The problems chiefly arise over word-class assignment, such as whether an item is adjectival or verb participial, and whether it's important to distinguish them, or whether a particular verb plus particle sequence is to be taken as a phrasal verb or not.

This isn't the kind of thing that can be done automatically - at least, not until the Early Modern English Dictionary, with everything grammatically tagged, is completed. It's very much a manual task at the moment - which of course is why it took so long.

John Cowan said...

It's straightforward enough (though laborious) to eyeball them; I was actually talking about automated lexeme assignment. "I marry" will usually be "Aye, marry", but in "I wil marrie you, if euer I marrie Woman" (AYL V:ii) it isn't. Getting that right requires EModE tagging, which as you say doesn't exist yet.

Alexander Bochkov said...

Please keep us posted, Professor Crystal. I'm looking forward to reading these new publications.

Philip Hall said...

I think of Shakespeare and his acting troop as a minter of words: concepts. In order to speak about his time and about the people of his time and their lives he needed to forge them in heat, and smash and chime them into shape in the anvil of his mind. These words were not museum pieces.

And in an age where it is the corporations and the military and the bureaucrats and media who manufacture and authorise the use of language for their purposes, shouldn't we be teaching these young people to forge their own concepts and call the shots, and teach them call a spade a spade?

A dictionary ossifies the language of Shakespeare. It cures Shakespeare's language like ham and serves it up

DC said...

I agree totally with the first paragraph. So the challenge is: how to turn a dictionary into something that avoids the traditional problem. It doesn't have to be the way you describe. Dictionaries can be exciting, especially when brilliantly illustrated, That's what Ben and I have tried to do, anyway. If you have a better idea, why not tell us what it is, instead of just being negative? Your comment is no solution, as it stands.

meherio68 said...

Dear Professor Crystal, I can remember attending a lecture you gave for a bunch of foreign Summer School students at Keble College in the summer of 1987, how illuminating it was, and I am very grateful for all the hard work you are putting into this. Really looking forward to that moment when you can recall it as "a lot of fun" and I can enjoy the results. Thank you!

Alexander Bochkov said...

Yesterday I received my copy of The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary. Beautiful illustrations, clear definitions with examples, stunning "thematic spreads" (e.g. Armour or Clothes), and informative panels. Thank you very much, Professor Crystal - and your son Ben - for such a beautiful and informative book!