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As the flow of emails that are still coming in daily tells us, the third Late Modern English conference, which was held here at Leiden a little while ago, turned out a very successful occasion. The plenaries, in my opinion, were brilliant, giving us a lot to think about, and the papers were all of an outstanding quality, including those presented as part of the two pre-conference workshops. A great conference indeed!

Sheffield was offered as the host for the next conference, in 2010. Sylvia Adamson has just been in touch with me, also on behalf of Joan Beal and Susan Fitzmaurice, to ask about what would be a good time of the year to have the conference, as August/September would unfortunately clash with ICEHL. Their suggestion, as a first option, would be moving 4LModE to the Spring of 2010, and they invite people’s opinions on this. What, if any are the drawbacks to this suggestion? They’d be happy to consider any other option that there is widespread support for (to end appropriately on a particle) (Sylvia speaking here).

Please either respond by commenting on this weblog entry below, or write to Sylva directly, at

3LModE Young Scholars Award

During the Third Late Modern English Conference, which was held in Leiden last week, Robin Straaijer (University of Leiden) was presented with the 3LModE – Young Scholars Award for his paper called "Towards a quantification of prescriptivism". While Robin received the trophy, he had to share the accompanying financial award with Svenja Kranich from the Free University of Berlin for her paper called "Interpretative progressives in Late Modern English".

Congratulations to both!

The history of tag questions

Could anyone help me find information on the history of the tag question? It is neither mentioned as a feature of Late Modern English grammar in Goerlach (2001) for the 18th century nor in Goerlach (1999) for the nineteenth, and yet they did occur. An example may be found in Kielkiewicz-Janowiak’s study of the language of early New England women (Poznan 2002), i.e. "Heavy business, is it not?" (Theodosia Burr, 4 June 1803; p. 190). Where do they come from? I’d also welcome additional examples.

Peter Hall’s 1834 Memoir of Robert Lowth

Anthony Lowth sent us the following entry: 

In November last year a biography of Robert Lowth was posted on the Codifiers weblog to mark the anniversary of his death. This biography, which was originally published around the time of Lowth’s death in the Gentleman’s Magazine, was full of factual errors.

For those interested in a rather more accurate and detailed account of Robert Lowth’s career there is now on the web a scan of Rev.Peter Hall’s 1834 publication ‘Sermons and Other Remains of Robert Lowth, Lord Bishop of London’. This starts with a 45 page ‘memoir’ of Robert Lowth’s career. Included in this is a biography of Robert’s father William Lowth, said to have been written by the son.

To find this scan, open the Google homepage, click on More, then select  Book Search. Next enter ‘Lowth Sermons’ in the search box, and it will find, amongst other things, Peter Hall’s book.

Anyone reading this account of Lowth’s career who has a particular interest in his grammar is, I’m afraid, likely to be disappointed. There is only one short paragraph that mentions the grammar at all (see page 24). The work for which Robert Lowth is best known, and most often written about, is his series of lectures delivered at Oxford University about Sacred Hebrew Poetry. Having said that, I don’t think there can be much doubt that, 245 years later, it is his grammar that has had the greatest effect on greatest number of people. Sadly this is something he gets few thanks for from current generations.

Try and or try to?

Gunnel Tottie (University of Zurich) asked me the following question:

"Can you can tell me anything about attitudes to the complementation of try – the choice between try and and  try to?  I have a paper in press in the ICAME Journal about the current use of these forms, together with Charlotte Hommerberg, and we have looked at the attitudes of contemporary prescriptivists.  I am now doing some work on the history of the constructions, and that is what I am writing about – can you tell me anything about earlier attitudes or maybe give me some bibliographical tips?"
The construction does not occur as a usage problem in the 1st edition of Lowth’s grammar (see my inventory in the recently published Handbook of the history of English by van Kemenade and Los (2006:553-5), and I can’t think of any 18th-century grammarian writing about it. Perhaps there is something in Leonard’s appendix in the Doctrine of correctness (1929)? I do seem to remember that the issue is discussed in Mittins et al., Attitudes to English usage (1970, I believe (I don’t have the copy here at hand). The nice thing about their study is that they place the usage problems they investigated into a historical perspective.
Perhaps other people have further suggestions?

A two-penny loaf?

On 25 April 1750, Lowth reported to his friend Sir Francis Dashwood that he had visited the newly excavated site of Herculaneum. He had been most struck by the following:

"Among other things of the like perishable nature there have been found vessels full of wheat, & beans, a bottle of Oil, another of some Spiritous Liquor, pieces of bread, & one entire Loaf: it is about the size of a common two penny brown Loaf, has the same form & appearance, & does not look so very stale neither: it is kept in a Glass case to secure it. I did not ex::amine it very nicely, but a Gentleman that saw it since observ’d some Letters upon it, wch. he was told no body could make out; he viewd it very narrowly, and with supplying a few Letters at the beginning, wch. I shall mark, is confident that he has hitt it off completely & truly as follows: siligo c ranii e cicere."

Could it be that what he witnessed was the loaf of bread that is currently on display at the exhibition called "The last hours of Herculaneum" at the Museum ‘t Falkhof in Nijmegen?

As the picture on this website shows, there is a stamp on it, but I can’t read it. What does a two-penny loaf looks like?

Readership of the British Library (1753-1836)

Anthony Lowth has just sent me a link to a document of a text which analyses the readership of the British Library (formerly British Museum) between 1753 and 1836. Among much other information the text informs us that "in 1759 there were 135 readers. There were 17 clerics, 19 doctors, and 18 who were reverend doctors making a total of 54. Of the 19 who were doctors only, at least eight were physisians or surgeons, and one, William Blackstone, was traced to a law professorship at Oxford. The other ten remain unknown. Many of the clerics achieved outstanding posts later in life. Charles Lyttleton, John Ross, John Douglas, Robert Lowth, and John Green became bishops, while the Bishop of Norwich was a reader in 1759 … (pp. 104-5)".

I wonder what Lowth would have been reading in the library of the British Museum in 1759.

Best Practice Session EEBO and ECCO

On Friday 16 February, the Codifiers project presented a Best Practice Session on EEBO and ECCO at the Faculty of Arts here at Leiden, intended for anyone from the university with an interest in these databases. The meeting started with highly informative explanations by Duncan Campbell (EEBO) and Julia de Mowbray (ECCO) on how the databases were compiled, how they could be searched, and what kind of information could be retrieved. Nest, four invited scholars, Marika Keblusek (Leiden, Art History), Helmer Helmers (Leiden, English, literature), Anita Auer (Leiden, English, sociohistorical linguistics) and Suzan van Dijk (Utrecht, French, literature, gender studies) showed us what working with these databases meant for their research as well as their teaching. Afterwards, their was the opportunity to practise with the databases in the computerlab, under the guidance of the Codifiers project members, who had prepared a set of tasks for this purpose. Participants were asked to report back on their findings during the concluding panel session, which included most of the previous speakers as well as Richard Todd (Leiden, English, British literature since 1500).

The topic for the session was "New electronic resources, new questions in research and teaching" (see also "New databases, new research questions" elsewhere in this Weblog). To what extent do these new databases allow us to ask different questions for our research, and how will they affect our research?

Marika Keblusek noted that she no longer has to travel to many different libraries all over the world in order to have access to material she needs for her research, and also, now that we have access to EEBO here at Leiden, that she no longer has to print out texts frantically whenever she visits a library that does have EEBO. Helmer Helmers showed us that the title of the database is not quite accurate, as EEBO contains much more than merely old books. Anita Auer demonstrated the many uses ECCO has for her research as well as her teaching, showing that students now have access to original material such as letter writing manuals and books on local dialects informing us of how individual sounds were pronounced at the time. Suzan van Dijk is interested in translations of Belle van Zuijlen’s Lettres de Lausanne, and she showed how the English translator of the letters coped with Belle’s frequent implicit sentence connections, a problem by which every reader of the letters is confronted. It also became clear, to mention a linguistic example, that the word brother could mean "brother-in-law" at the time, which is something to be reckoned with in all research that includes family relationships at the time. My own favourite example of how to make use of ECCO in a novel way is that it allows you to find that influence between authors need not be reciprocal: by doing a full-text search with one name and an author search with another and then reversing the operation I found that Priestley refers to Lowth’s grammar but Lowth does not refer to Priestley’s. Next the question has to be asked why this would be so (there is a very good reason for this, but I would never have considered the question if I hadn’t found out about this). Richard Todd, finally, mentioned the fact that EEBO should perhaps include different copies of texts of the same print run, as during the Early Modern period books were usually corrected while coming off the press; thus, no copy of a single book is exactly alike. This would allow us to study textual differences in an unprecedented amount of detail.

It was noted, moreover, that it seems unlikely that we will start producing more publications just because we have access to more data in less time than ever before. We will probably simply use the time gained to process our data, as in the past, but produce more accurately researched and thus higher quality output! It was generally felt that we are living in what feels like revolutionary times. More such databases should be produced, also outside the field of English, and universities should learn to look ahead and make money available for the acquisition of such databases in order for the scholars employed by them to be able to compete with the rest of the world.

We would be interested in hearing about more novel ways in which ECCO leads to new research results, and I would like to encourage readers of this forum to share ideas with us here. Not exactly new research questions, but two particularly exciting research findings may be found in the screenshots on this page.

The size of Lowth’s grammars

Lowth’s grammars were published in two, sometimes three different sizes, mostly quarto and octavo. Noel Osselton wrote to me about this as follows: "Is it true that 12mo schoolbooks (roughly 12 x 11 cm, or 26 x 11 cm when lying open) were favoured at that time because they fitted well into the available space remaining at the top of a pupil’s desk? What would have been the usual dimensions of a pupil’s desk at a well-founded school in the 1760’s?" This is a very interesting point indeed. Does anyone know where I can find more information about the size of school desks in the eitheenth century?

PhD positions

Four general positions (Application number 6-272)
LUCL has positions for four paid PhD students (Dutch: promovendi) for research in any field of linguistics in which members of the institute have expertise. To apply, send a preliminary research proposal in English (max. 1,000 words), CV, copies of diplomas and grade lists, names and full contact details of three scholars who could be asked to write a recommendation letter for you, any further documentation (BA, MA and/or M.Phil theses, relevant articles or term papers), as well as a motivation for your choice for Leiden University and LUCL (max. 200 words) to the address below. Both word limits will be strictly enforced. The deadline for application is February 15, 2007. Shortlisted candidates will be asked to send a more detailed proposal around April 1; final decisions are expected around May 15.

For further details, see

NB. This announcement also applies to candidates interested in a PhD position in our VICI-project. For further information, please contact Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (