Latin Basics - Transcription



Basic terminology for the description of scripts and letters, and the physical features of the pages that carry them. Introduction to papyrus, parchment, and the codex.

The Purposes of Transcription

Transcription is the process of recording the text found in a manuscript.

Transcription has two purposes, which can feel in practice like they are at odds with one another:

  1. You want to convert the text in the manuscript into an easily-readable form that you or others will be able to use for further work on the text. That means recording a text that may be written in a script you find difficult to read in a script or typography with which you and others who use your work are familiar. You will want to produce a transcription that can easily be compared with transcriptions of the same text from other manuscripts. To facilitate comparison by the human eye, you must transcribe into an easily-readable alphabet and use a limited set of conventional signs to indicate unusual features of how the text appears in manuscript. To allow comparison by computer, you need to identify salient linguistic units as you transcribe.
  2. You want to record as much information as possible about the way the text appeared in this manuscript. You must assume you will not get another chance to look at the manuscript you are working on. In the era of digitized manuscripts, that is less likely than it once was, but in your future work with manuscripts you will undoubtedly encounter circumstances where you get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit a manuscript in a distant repository. You may not know until a much later stage of work on your text exactly what features will turn out to be important. That means that it pays to record as faithfully as possible exactly what you see in the manuscript.

In sum, you should aim to:

  • make as full a record as possible of what is in the manuscript
  • create a form useful to you and easy to understand when the manuscript is no longer in front of you
  • achieve the above with as little ambiguity as possible in the transcription

In order to satisfy these aims, scholars who work with manuscripts have agreed on a set of conventions for what to do when transcribing. In the next section, we explain what kinds of interventions you SHOULD make in the text of the manuscript you're transcribing and what you should NOT do, and the symbols to use to indicate what you have done. After you've read through these instructions, you'll have a chance to practice using these conventions on small portions of manuscript text.

Transcription Principles and Conventions

Word Separation

DO add modern word separation as you transcribe. Early manuscripts have no word separation at all. Later medieval manuscripts generally have pretty good word separation, but it does not always accord with modern conventions. Sometimes, there are spaces between syllables of the same word. You will need to apply your knowledge of Latin to figure out where words end and which word-parts belong together.

DO indicate when the scribe has broken a word at line end. Later medieval scribes often use hyphens the same way we do to indicate a word break at line end. You can reproduce that when you see it by transcribing the scribe's hyphen. If the scribe breaks a word without adding a hyphen, you should add a hyphen in parentheses: (-)


DO indicate where the lines end in the manuscript. Knowing where the scribe's lines end may turn out to be helpful later on in understanding scribal errors or in figuring out which manuscripts are copied from which. The easiest (least confusing) way to do this is to transcribe each line in the manuscript on a separate line, which is what we ask you to do in the transcription exercises in this course. This facilitates checking your transcription, and it allows you to see at a glance where the scribe's eye (or yours) may have skipped a line. However, this may not always be feasible. An alternative is to use a vertical line to indicate line breaks in the manuscript.

Respecting the Scribe's Usage

DO NOT correct the scribe's spelling, vocabulary, usage, syntax, etc. The scribe's way of using Latin is one of the most important things you are trying to capture in your transcription. Tiny differences may turn out to have huge implications for the history of the text you are working on.

DO NOT add modern capitalization. Whether a scribe writes in all majuscule or all minuscule, you should transcribe everything in lower case. The exception is when the scribe clearly uses larger letters to mark important distinctions in the text. You should use capitals to reproduce such distinctions.

DO NOT add modern punctuation. Instead, reproduce the scribe's punctuation as best you can with the symbols available to you.

When you've digested these principles, click ahead to try a short review quiz to be sure you've got them before we continue.

If you follow the principles discussed in the last section, you should end up with a text that you can read fairly easily, because it has modern word separation, and you will also have recorded any peculiarities of your scribe's usage, variations in the text being copied, and any variations introduced by the scribe in the process of copying.

In addition to these basic features of the text in your manuscript, you also need to record any changes, additions, deletions, or corrections made by the main scribe or another early hand, and any places where the manuscript is damaged or where for some other reason you can't make out what it says. Here are the principles and conventions for doing that. (We will review and practice these in the coming lessons, so read through them now, but don't worry if this seems like too much detail.)

Recording Insertions and Deletions

Principle: DO indicate when you are supplying letters that the scribe left out or that are illegible in the manuscript.

Expanding abbreviations:

When the scribe abbreviates a word, expand the abbreviation and indicate what part of the word is your expansion by putting those words in parentheses. We will practice this in the next section, and more details about how to work with abbreviations are provided in subsequent transcription lessons.

Example: In this late-antique manuscript of Virgil, the scribe uses just one abbreviation: for enclitic -que, he writes Q with a medial dot after it. When you transcribe his Q•, you will expand the abbreviation, but put in parentheses the letters that the scribe omitted through abbreviation. So here, for example, the manuscript says: TOTIDEMQ• but you, following the rule not to transcribe a text all in capitals, will expand this as totidemq(ue)

St Gall 1392 detail

line 2 detail from St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394, p. 12. (e‑

Scribal corrections:

If the scribe has erased something, indicate the erasure with square brackets: [ ]. If the scribe made a correction over the erasure and you can tell what the erased letter was, you can indicate that by putting a slash between the erased letter and the correction inside the brackets. For example, if the scribe wrote h instead of d at the beginning of the word domini and then caught his error, erased the h, and replaced it with a d, you would write: [h/d]omini. If the scribe entered a correction over the erasure but you can't tell what the erased letter was, leave the first part blank: [ /d]omini

Example: In this Carolingian manuscript, the scribe, or one contemporary with the original writing, has written an abbreviated tamen over an erasure. We can't see at all what was there before the erasure and correction.

St Gall 152 detail

line 10 detail from St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 152, p. 1. (e‑

You need to record that this is a correction over an erasure, and you need to expand the abbreviation. So we put the whole thing in single square brackets, with a slash before the tamen to show that something was erased before it was written, and with parentheses around the en part to show that the scribe omitted those letters in abbreviation. (We'll learn more about how to recognize abbreviations like this in future lessons.) So you would transcribe: [/tam(en)]

Scribal insertions:

If the scribe has added letters to the manuscript on the line of writing (i.e., in line with the other letters), put the scribe's insertions in between downward-slanting lines: / \

If the scribe has added something between the lines, put the scribe's insertions in between upward-slanting lines like this: \ /

If the scribe has made an insertion in the margins, put the marginal addition in between double upward-slanting lines like this: \\ //

We'll look at examples of these kinds of insertions in future lessons.

Illegible letters:

If letters are illegible or invisible in the manuscript, put double square brackets [[ ]] around the illegible portion. If you can make a guess with a fair degree of confidence about what the missing letters are based on what you can still make out, put the damaged letter(s) within the brackets. If you can't read the missing letter(s) at all but can see how many there probably were, put asterisks in square brackets [[***]], with the number of asterisks indicating your best guess at the number of missing letters.

Example: At the beginning of the first line of this manuscript (the same Vergil manuscript as above), we can see that there is a damaged letter before the first clear e, but we really can't tell what that letter might have been.

St Gall 1394 detail

line 2 detail from St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1394, p. 12. (e‑

There may have been letters before that, but we will just indicate the one we can tell was there, but can't make sense of. So here we would transcribe the beginning of this line: [[*]]enum — double brackets to indicate letters rendered illegible from damage to the manuscript, and one asterisk to indicate that we can definitely see one letter missing.

Important note: If you know your Vergil or the meter of the line, you'll realize there is much more than one letter missing. But we are just recording what we can see, not what we conjecture ought to be there.

Summary of Transcription Conventions

That was a lot to take in at once. Below is a summary of the symbols you will use in your transcriptions in the coming lessons. If you bear in mind the principles covered earlier in this lesson about respecting and recording the scribe's usage, you'll have plenty of chances to practice using these conventions, and we'll remind you of them with each exercise in the lessons to come.

( )
Expanded abbreviation
[ ]
Scribal erasure
[ / ]
Scribal erasure and correction (left of slash left blank if erased letter is illegible, recorded if it is legible — e.g. [h/d]omini for scribal correction of h to d)
[[ ** ]]
Portion of text lost through damage and illegible. Number of asterisks = approximate number of lost letters, where possible to estimate. Otherwise leave space between brackets blank.
/ \
Scribal insertion on the line
\ /
Scribal insertion between the lines
\\ //
Scribal insertion in margin

Note: You will encounter variations and expansions on this system in other paleographic manuals, encoding systems, and publishers' stylesheets. If you practice transcribing with this set of symbols in the exercises in this course, you will develop the habit of observing the manuscript closely and recording what you can really see. That is the most important lesson. You can then apply those skills to different editorial situations.