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Correspondence and Linguistics

Professor Hilary Nesi and Emma Moreton, Faculty of Business, Environment and Society, Coventry University


The BT Archives contain a large number of letters; for the purposes of this project we selected about 500 for digital conversion and close investigation. We defined as ‘letters' those files (or groups of files) where there was an address/location of the sender, a date, opening and closing salutations and a signature (or indication of a signature). In the batch of material we received from the Archives there were around thirteen thousand files. Among these were documents ranging from envelopes to diagrams, from memos to dinner menus for the Post Office Jubilee party. We extracted all the files that met our ‘letter' criteria (about one thousand). These ranged in date from 1853 to 1982, and when selecting our corpus we tried to maintain a balance across these 14 decades. There were, however, only ten or fewer letters from the 1850s, 1860s, 1880s and 1900s and just 28 letters from the 1970s, whereas some decades were very well represented. In the 1920s for instance, the design and installation of the new style of telephone kiosks and the establishment of the transatlantic telephone service had generated a lot of correspondence.

Some of the letters we selected for inclusion had obvious historical significance because they were written by, or on behalf of, well-known people such as Guglielmo Marconi or Alexander Graham Bell. We also included a great deal of ‘day to day' correspondence which touched on topics of historical interest such as the employment of disabled workers, the consideration of employees from former colonies and the impact on members of the public of the cessation of the telegram service.


Our final corpus is fairly evenly, although not perfectly, spread across decades, as shown below:



The letters are predominantly written by men, with only 13 authors identifying themselves as female. They are handwritten, typed, or carbon copies of typed originals. Handwritten letters obviously make up the majority of the earlier material, but we tried to include some handwritten letters throughout the decades. Mistakes, such as Marconi's mention of a ‘peace of insulated metal' in his description of his experiments on Salisbury plain, have been retained in order to represent real language use.


Using corpus query tools such as the Wordtree (http://wordtree.coventry.ac.uk/?BT ) anyone can search for words in the corpus and examine the context in which they occur. The wordtree for the word ‘sir' for example, shows that it occurs 387 time in the corpus as a whole. The opening salutation ‘Dear Sir' is used throughout the decades, but final salutations such as ‘I am sir your obedient servant' and ‘I have the honour to be sir your obedient servant' gradually fell out of use. The last occurrence in the corpus is in 1959 (L19).


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