Spenser’s Spell: Linguistic Change and Historical Stylometrics
Dr. Anupam Basu

This talk will investigate one of the basic truisms about Edmund Spenser’s language – that it is distinguished by more or less systematic archaizing. A long editorial and critical tradition has held that the orthography of Spenser’s texts was distinctive and that Spenser extended the normal latitudes of mid-sixteenth-century practice to achieve particular effects. I will ask how we might understand such distinctiveness within a regime of spelling that already tolerated a wide degree of variation. The scale of the EEBO-TCP corpus – containing over 50,000 texts printed before 1700 – provides unprecedented access to the early English print record. But while the orthographic irregularity of this corpus has often been seen as a hindrance for computational analysis, I will develop a set of techniques that allow us to trace the the history of printed orthography. Such an account of linguistic evolution, I will argue, enables meticulously historicized literary profiling able to capture nodes of atavism and idiosyncrasy, and the discovery of stylistic and thematic cohorts. Situating Spenser’s texts within such a model of linguistic change over the first two centuries of English print will let us explore the ways in which early readers might have read these texts and how they might have interpreted Spenser’s spelling and lexical choices as indicators of his poetic archaism.

Anupam Basu received his PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011. He is currently the Mark Steinberg Weil Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.