Nov 6, 2013

Models for Text

The paper I gave in New York recently, at an INKE conference, tentatively explored the idea that multiple models for text are desirable because humans use text in various ways. The four models for text I proposed, by way of example, are summarised in this table:

And here are little examples of each:

The first is a detail from a facsimile image of the opening of the gospel of John in the St Cuthbert Gospel, British Library MS Additional 89000.

The second is a transcription of the opening words: it encodes the text using modern letterforms.

The third is an edition of those same words, in principio erat verbum (‘in the beginning was the Word’). The edition is like the transcription, but with further adjustments to make it easier for a modern person to read the text, and for the editor’s interpretation of the text to be communicated. For example, I have changed the <u> at the beginning of uerbum to a <v>, so that the modern reader will not be confused by the medieval interchangeability of <u> and <v>; however, another editor may not do so. However, another editor might capitalise Verbum, to indicate that the text is referring to Christ as the (divine) Word, as opposed to any merely human word. (This would, of course, be a purely modern convention, since capitalisation of proper nouns did not become standardised in English until modern times; it did not exist in the Greek text of the Bible, nor in early Latin translations of the text such as the St Cuthbert Gospel since it is written in a majuscule script, nor indeed often in medieval English texts.) So there is considerable room for difference when editing even in a four-word line of text.

Finally, the last example is a word cloud (generated by Wordle) of a slightly longer passage from the opening of the St Cuthbert gospel of John. It is a visualisation, the result of processing the text as data to produce one possible view of its information, in this case allowing us to see the relative word frequencies in terms of the size of the word in the cloud.

The point I tried to make in the paper is that all four models of text are not only active today, but have also been used throughout the history of English textuality (and probably most histories of textuality in general, but I am staying within the scope of this project), beginning with the Middle Ages. Different disciplines tend to privilege different models of text, but we need to consider a range of them, if not all if them, if we are to increase our understanding of what people do with texts.

Yin Liu

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