Making the old English of Shakespeare's time new again

William Shakespeare. Photograph:( Others )

WION Delhi, India Feb 23, 2017, 11.51 AM (IST) Zeba Khan

English, like every other language, has changed over time. So much so, that the form used by writers back in the sixteenth-seventeenth century is today very difficult to comprehend. 

A 17th century writer, Richard Stanyhurst, published Contention Between Liberality And Prodigality, where he wrote about the game of tennis. "Every minute tost, like to a tennis-ball, from pillar to post. Free thee poast toe piler with thoght his rackt wyt he tosseth."

When the book was published, a game of tennis and this phrase was tied to each other. Even before the tennis racket came into existence, there were elements equally important and the game was all about strategy and endurance. The net, nothing more than a rope was tied to a post at one end and to one of the pillars supporting the galleries at the other end, and thus, the idiom from post to pillar began.

This is just one of the thousands of pages that exist today in handwritten documents from 16th to 17th century England. Volunteers are now coming together to transcribe these old English documents as part of an initiative called Shakespeare's World. It was launched on Zooniverse, a research-crowdsourcing platform in 2015 with an aim to make people understand the English language used around the time of William Shakespeare.

Old English manuscript (Source: Wikipedia Commons) (Others)


There is a lengthy list of literature written around the time, now called the Renaissance. The development of the English language is also linked to the consolidation and strengthening of the English state. This idea of Shakespeare's World was thus conceptualised in 2013 when Zooniverse's founder, Chris Lintott started discussing with his friend Victoria Van Hyning, a scholar of English literature, what she considered the most pressing problem in the humanities. And what came out of it was that there was a looming problem of text transcription, according to the New Yorker.  

Zooniverse has partnered with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, and  the Oxford English Dictionary. Volunteers for Shakespeare’s World can view images of documents from the Folger’s manuscript collection and transcribe. The best part about this process is that the volunteers dont have to worry about getting the text perfect. Many transcribe each line independently, and an algorithm originally designed to identify similar DNA or protein sequences compares the strings of letters to determine a likely best answer. Spot-checks suggest that the quality of completed lines is close to that of scholarly work, as reported to the New Yorker. 

Till now, Zooniverse users have completed more than 3,300 pages. 

The Zooniverse project is scheduled to last for two more years. Meanwhile, Folger team will be uploading finished transcriptions to their Early Modern Manuscripts Online database, which launched in beta this month. Volunteers continue to log hours in the evenings, on holidays, and during coffee breaks.