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American Speech 79.2 (2004) 146-167

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Editing the Salem Witchcraft Records:

An Exploration of a Linguistic Treasury

Uppsala University
University of Helsinki

The witchcraft trials in Salem Village, Massachusetts, in 1692 constitute one of the best-known events in the history of the early English settlement of the North American continent. Our knowledge of the course of the trials mainly derives from the some 1,000 records preserved from the trial proceedings and preliminary hearings. So far, it is mainly social historians and literary scholars who have studied the original documents (see, e.g., Rosenthal 1993 and references therein). However, the trial documents also present a wealth of material significant to historical linguists interested in early American English and the Early Modern period in general (see Kytö 1991, forthcoming; Hiltunen 1996; Rissanen 1997, 2003). The documents constitute a rich variety of text categories from records of examinations and depositions to formulaic warrants and indictments. Consequently, apart from providing essential historical facts, the documents also give unique insights into the language of the period both in highly specialized, formal written uses and in less formal, speech-related contexts. The aim of this article is to present work in progress on a new edition of the documents from the Salem witchcraft trials that considers the linguistic features of the documents. Focusing on examinations and depositions, we will also discuss the characteristics of the documents and their usefulness and value for linguistic research. In connection with this discussion, we will consider the scribal context and the importance of this feature to a linguistic exploration of the documents. We will show how a new edition may further understanding of the early development of the English language in North America.

Historical Background

The persecution of alleged witches in Salem Village began in March 1692 when a group of girls and young women accused three older women in the [End Page 146] Puritan settlement of being witches. Shortly thereafter, numerous allegations were put forward by a large number of people against men as well as women, children as well as adults, and neighbors as well as relatives. At the end of the trials, over 156 people had been accused of witchcraft, of which 20 had been executed and 4 had died in prison. The Salem witchcraft trials and the circumstances surrounding them have had a great impact on later generations. Rosenthal (1993, 1) summarizes the historic and cultural influence of the trials in the following way:

Few topics in American culture have received the broad attention received by the Salem witch trials. The subject of scholarly tomes, films, television shows, folklore, and newspaper cartoons, and the vehicle for countless metaphors of oppression and persecution, Salem has had a powerful hold on American imagination. An event that by some European standards of witchcraft persecutions would be relatively minor in its magnitude has achieved an archetypal status in our own country and in others.

The Salem Editorial Project

The aim of the Salem Editorial Project is to produce a new edition of the documents relating to the witchcraft trials. The project comprises scholars from the United States, Sweden, and Finland and is headed by Bernard Rosenthal, State University of New York, Binghamton.1 The project is largely Internet-based: images of the original documents have been made available to the project members on Internet sites. Furthermore, state-of-the-art databases are used for storing and working with the transcriptions of the documents.2

There are several earlier editions that include some or most of the documents. The most recent and most widely cited edition is Boyer and Nissenbaum (1977). However, the text of this edition is based on earlier transcriptions made in the 1930s; in most cases the editors did not inspect the original documents (32). These transcriptions have been shown to be deficient in many respects. In addition, the editorial principles adopted by Boyer and Nissenbaum do not satisfy the demands of linguistic or philological accuracy (see esp. pp. 37-39). Three examples...


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pp. 146-167
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Archived 2005
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