New Search | Return to Search Results | Print View

Paper: Probabilistic Analysis of Middle English Orthography: the Auchinleck Manuscript

Thaisen, Jacob, University of Stavanger,

The bulk of the literary materials that survive from the Middle English period are scribal copies, rather than authorial compositions. Such copies pose a challenge to the stylometrist, the reason being that copies written in a single scribal hand may have non-identical orthographic profiles. Their non-identity is a product of their transmission history, as the typical copy will contain both spelling forms originating in the exemplars and other such forms introduced by the scribe. Historical dialectologists have developed methods for separating the mix of scribal usage and exemplar usage typically recorded in a single scribal copy. Although powerful, these methods rely on questionnaire-based interrogation of text samples and subsequent visual analysis of spelling forms arranged in tables. The arrival of digital transcripts has sped up the data collection process and has led to compilation of fuller profiles, but the questionnaire itself has stayed. Thus, these methods fail to take full advantage of the digital medium.

This presentation demonstrates that a purpose of identifying and isolating locations in which the makeup of the spelling system changes during the full text of a longer Middle English literary manuscript may be met by probability-based comparison of text samples. What spelling forms happen to be attested in a given text is a function of what words happen to make up that text. The direct comparison of texts is therefore not readily possible. It has typically been made possible by considering profiles recording only the spelling forms of those words which may reasonably be expected to occur in every text, such as function words like "such", "that", and "these". The alternative solution proposed in this paper is to base assessment of similarity on "models" of text samples' spelling–exhaustive profiles of which letters and letter sequences occur in them and with which frequency. I shall refer to single letters as unigrams, ordered sequences of two letters as bigrams, etc. Such models are easily compiled from electronic diplomatic transcripts. The dissolution into n-grams is equal to identification of the between texts because comparison of the building blocks is in itself relatively independent of the word level.

Similarity is measured between a text sample (the test sample) and a model derived from another text sample (the training sample). It is expressed as the overall probability that the test sample is an instance of the same spelling system as the system modelled. Computing this probability proceeds, with a trigram model, from consideration of each unigram in the context of the bigram preceding it–the reader may correctly recognise the "Markov assumption" in this description. What is output, however, is the reciprocal of the average probability per gram. This entity, called "perplexity", will conveniently always be a positive number larger than 1 with the present type of data. Moreover, techniques exist for "smoothing" a model, that is for reducing its dependence on the words constituting the training sample. This reduction is achieved by statistically manipulating the probabilities computed for the training sample n-grams. Smoothing additionally leads to probability being assigned to spelling forms unattested in the training sample.

It is these properties of these techniques that makes their application on n-gram models based on Middle English texts further increase the comparability of those texts. Probabilistic modeling techniques have, however, as far as I am aware, rarely been applied for the stylometric analysis of Middle English materials, and it has yet to be established which specific smoothing technique produces the most satisfactory models of those materials.

A simple example may illustrate. The spelling forms <suich, suyche, such> for the word "such" are found in text A, while the same word is spelt <suche> in text B. Intuitively, the text B spelling form <suche> falls within the range of variation characteristic of the spelling system of text A but happens to be unattested in it, while other known Middle English forms such as as <swylke, suilk> do not. The present methodology involves dissolving <suche> into <su, suc, uch, che, he> and establishing the smoothed conditional probability for each of these trigram building blocks in text A (thus obtaining a intuition that the spelling form is possible in the spelling system of text A. In practice, however, the quantification is not effected for the individual form but for the whole of text B in relation to text A.

To illustrate the adequacy of perplexity-based comparison in stylometry, I trace changes in spelling in a large manuscript collecting several Middle English literary works. The corpus is the Auchinleck manuscript, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates' MS 19.2.1, produced in the London-Westminster area in the first half of the fourteenth century. The potential influences on the scribes include the literary structure, as the codex's total of almost 59,000 lines of text are divided between no less than forty-four literary works representing a range of genres. A map showing locations in which the spelling system changes during the full text of the Auchinleck manuscript may be expected to reflect the literary structure only if the exemplars did so and the Auchinleck scribes reproduced them slavishly. By contrast, it is the boundaries of the scribal contributions that will be visible in the map if each scribe thoroughly converted into his own spelling system when copying. Six scribal hands are present. Of these, Scribe 4's contribution is too short (551 words) to constitute a reliable sample, while the usages of the other five scribes should be visible. They are distinct in terms of their typological classification on the dialect continuum, although they fall into an eastern cluster and a western one. Dialect analysis has thus placed Scribe 1 in Middlesex, Scribe 2 on the Gloucestershire-Worcestershire border, Scribe 3 in London, Scribe 5 in Essex, and Scribe 6 in Worcestershire (McIntosh, Samuels, et al 1986, I: 88; LPs 6510, 6940, 6500, 6350, and 7820).

To be able to compute and compare probability for sections of the Auchinleck manuscript against one another, I obtained a digital transcript of its text from the Oxford Text Archive (Burnley and Wiggins 2003). The transcript is suitable, because rather than modernise the spelling forms found in its source, it reproduces the source in conformity with standard practice of diplomatic transcription. My tool for constructing models and computing perplexity is the SRI Language Modeling Toolkit (SRILM; Stolcke 2002); this toolkit is freely available for noncommercial purposes from the website of its SRILM constructed and smoothed an interpolated model for every 200-line section; the smoothing technique selected was that described by Witten and Bell (1991). This technique was developed for purposes of text compression at the level of the word but it is appropriate for application on Middle English spelling data too. The reason is that the technique effectively assigns probability to collocating letters as if they were a single letter, rather than a series of independent units.

The toolkit took the same modified transcripts of all the sections as the input and computed their similarity with the models. The computation resulted in a separate model for each section, and for every such model, a separate perplexity for every section. I established the mean perplexity and standard deviation for the perplexities obtained for each model. The box and whisker graph below shows the results. In this graph the vertical axis gives perplexity and the horizontal axis position in the text of the Auchinleck manuscript. The diamond represents mean perplexity and the T-bar represents half a standard deviation, so that one upright T-bar and its reverse together indicate an interval of one standard deviation from the mean. A dashed vertical line appears for ease of reference at the boundary of a scribal stint as established by palaeographers (Bliss 1951), with the outlined numbers identifying the scribes.

As is apparent, the figure distinguishes the scribes of the Auchinleck manuscript. The rises and falls in mean perplexity during the text strongly correlate with the boundaries of the scribal stints, while mean perplexity is relatively constant within every such stint. Repetion of the experiment with other divisions of the text produced results sufficiently similar to Figure 1 to establish the pattern as being a property of the data rather than an artefact of the method.

It would have been time-consuming indeed to conduct a questionnaire-based interrogation of the full text of the Auchinleck manuscript. Visual analysis of the resulting profile to identify and isolate locations in which the spelling system changes would, moreover, have been complex, because of the amount of data and difficulty of isolating the diagnostic features. Perplexity-based comparison as illustrated above, by contrast, requires little preprocessing of the transcript, is effected in an afternoon, and is based on all the available data.

Mean perplexity and standard deviation in the Auchinleck manuscript (trigram models, 200-line sections)

Full Size Image


Bliss, A. J. 1951 “Notes on the Auchinleck Manuscript, ” Speculum, 26 652–58

Burnley, D. A. Wiggins2003 The Auchinleck Manuscript (link)

McIntosh, A. M. L. Samuels M. Benskin 1986 A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, 4 vols Aberdeen Aberdeen University Press

Stolcke, A. 2002 SRILM: An extensible language modeling toolkit Hansen, P. Pellom, B. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Spoken Language Processing Denver Casual Productions 901–04

Witten, I. H. T. C. Bell 1991 The Zero-Frequency Problem: Estimating the Probabilities of Novel Events in Adaptive Text Compression, IEEE Transactions on Information Theory, 37 1085–94