Double “l” in Eighteenth-century Manuscripts

Transcribing the manuscript letters of Joseph Priestley, I notice that, at least to modern standards, he has a rather peculiar way of writing word-final double "l" in such words as "all" and "shall". The first "l" is a fully formed letter, the second one is invariably vestigial. For the most part, this second "l" has no discernable loop and does not nearly reach the top of the line, making it more akin to a lowercase "’r" or lowercase "e" than anything else.

I am not sure whether this is a feature of the eighteenth century English writing system or whether it is an idiosyncracy of Priestley’s. Since I’ve not been able to find any literature about this ‘feature’, I would be interested to find whether anyone else working with eighteenth century letters has also observed this.

Here is an example with "shall" in a letter to the Dutch chemist Martinus van Marum (dated  14 Septeber 1785):

JP to MvM 14_09_1785

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  1. Ingrid Tieken

    What is also of interest in the above piece from the letter by Priestley is that it shows that words are sometimes joined together. Should “ofit” in the second line be transcribed as a single word or as two? It clearly, I think, suggests speed of writing.

  2. Anni Sairio

    I have found this type of double l in the manuscript letters of Elizabeth Vesey (educated, Irish background) from the late 1770s. I have photos of these letters, and I just looked up an instance of ‘I shall’ which illustrates this quite nicely. I assume it’s not possible to attach pictures here?

    I haven’t seen this feature elsewhere in the Bluestocking letters that I have transcribed, so it might be idiosyncratic to Vesey. She is the only Irish person whose letters I have worked with, so I can’t say if her background plays any part in this. Her hand is dynamic and very careless.

  3. Marina Dossena

    I’m afraid I’ve never come across this digraph in the 19th-c Scottish letters I’ve transcribed so far… It could be really idiosyncratic, but I agree that checking with his contemporaries (even better, people within his network?) would be a good idea.


  4. Richard Dury

    Looks like a marked idiosyncratic feature – many people have such idiosyncratic features in their handwriting. This double-l I have never seen before.

  5. Richard Dury

    This unusual double-l-digraph with vestigal second-l is certainly not part of the taught system of roundhand, a version of which he must have learnt at his local Yorkshire schools in the 1740s. Looks like a marked idiosyncratic feature such as many people have in their handwriting.


  6. Stefan Dollinger

    I’m not aware of the ll-feature. I didn’t notice this as a problem (or at all) in my Canadian corpus, CONTE (see

    I just checked in some AusE ms from around 1800 and didn’t see it there either.

    Idiosyncratic to Priestely? Maybe, but make sure to check a few of his contemporaries.

    What are the implications of this if it turns out to be a feature in Priestley’s handwriting? I think it’s important to distinguish between graphemes (cf. phonemes_) and their realizations as an (allograph) – cf. allophone. So if he just writes double l’s in a peculiar way, P. has an allographic variant in his inventory.

    NB: This has little to do with writing systems in the sense of an “underlying system”. There’s a little bit on this on p. in: ttp://, on p. 12ff.

    Hope this helps, keep up the good work,

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