“When Words Don’t Look as They Should: Learning to Read and Transcribe English Secretary Hand”
During my Arts & Sciences Undergraduate Research Project this summer, I learned to read a new language: English — English Secretary Hand, that is. Specifically, I transcribed under the mentorship of Steffi Dippold a letter written and copied in the seventeenth century.
In 1673, Thomas Shepard Jr, a New England minister from Charlestown (today a part of Boston), penned the about 30-page long letter to a Scottish Presbyterian. Used as official script in documents and personal correspondence from the sixteenth century until far into the eighteenth century, Secretary Hand is today a historic style of writing. In fact, the antiquated unfamiliar letterforms with their loops and flourishes are quite illegible to us. Have a look at the below examples of the words “love” and “communicated”:
In order to learn Secretary Hand, you have to slow down massively to decipher each individual character before you can make out complete words. At least in the beginning, reading feels like moving through molasses. What makes things worse, spelling rules were not standardized yet and words can look quite irregular and surprising.
Another particularly challenging aspect of my project involved figuring out the shorthand symbols that scribes employed for oft-repeated words, not to mention that letters sometimes were placed upside down or backwards!
Such irregularities definitely made for an intriguing project. But these puzzles and challenges were also a favorite part of my transcription work. I really enjoyed figuring out some of the implicit references in Shepard’s letter as he often pulled from outside sources, such as the Bible or classical Latin sources.
Divided into two distinct halves, Shepard’s letter chronicles the successes of the missionary John Eliot in converting Native Americans to Christianity in several Praying Indian towns in seventeenth-century New England. Shepard’s letter details how the “Sacrament of the Lords supper [was] celebrated in the Indian Church, and many of the English Church gladely joyned with them, for which cause it was celebrated in both languages.” Shepard includes in his contemplation people from many different backgrounds and records undocumented details of Native American life and responses to literacy.
I “gladely joined” Shephard in my summer-long excursion into colonial New England — a rich multi-cultural and multi-linguistic world, as I found out, captured in beautiful irregular loops and flourishes.
— Krista Everhart (BS ’20, Secondary Education — English, with minors in English and Computer Science)