Bench-initial line position

It has long been observed that bench glyphs, [ch] and [sh], are less frequent at the start of first words in a line. Certainly Currier had made this observation back in the 1970s. A related, but less well-known feature is that words beginning with a bench glyph and sometimes more frequent in the second position of a line.

A couple of tables will help to illustrate the feature. The table below shows the number of words beginning [ch] in each position from the left by each hand/scribe.

Position from left12345
Hand 191439350296223
Hand 224188170190174
Hand 330255229224194

The table below shows the number of words beginning [sh] in each position from the left by each hand/scribe.

Position from left12345
Hand 196213142142103
Hand 236222175131114
Hand 3472171109590

The figures given are counts for three scribes/hands as identified by Lisa Fagin Davis (2020). The total number of words written by each hand differs, so the counts are not directly comparable. The interest is in how the numbers change from left to right.

Were words distributed randomly (or just evenly according to a principle which was “ignorant” of the line) then we would expect to see the numbers of these words to be broadly equal. The counts would decrease from left to right, simply because not all lines contain two, three, four, or five words.

Yet we see clearly two patterns as mentioned above:

  • In nearly all cases words beginning [ch] or [sh] in the leftmost position are significantly lower than subsequent positions. The only exception is for words beginning [sh] written by hand 1, where the fifth position is nearly as low as the first.
  • In some cases the number of bench-initial words in the second position is noticeably higher than subsequent positions. This is true for hand 1 in both cases, but also hands 2 (though weak) and 3 for [sh].

How can these features be explained? Is there some way we can even out the occurrence of bench initial words?

Several years ago we look at linestart words, which showed that the initial glyphs for words at the start of lines were quite different. Words beginning with [ych], [ysh], [dch], [dsh] were strongly tied to the start of lines. The possibility that words at the start of lines may have additional initial glyphs was explored in another post on the subject.

The hypothesis is thus that by removing [y] or [d] from certain words at the start of lines, we’ll end up with a more even distribution of words beginning with [ch] or [sh].

Below is a table showing the distribution of words beginning [ych]/[ysh] according to position in the line and by individual hand/scribe.

Position from left12345
Hand 175 / 144 / 00 / 01 / 11 / 0
Hand 223 / 213 / 00 / 03 / 13 / 2
Hand 368 / 342 / 11 / 02 / 00 / 0

And again, the same table as above but this time for [dch]/[dsh].

Position from left12345
Hand 161 / 277 / 312 / 48 / 320 / 0
Hand 235 / 40 3 / 00 / 01 / 40 / 2
Hand 336 / 293 / 11 / 02 / 12 / 0

The tables show that these words are strongly line initial, though [dch] in hand 1 appears to occur throughout the text in lower numbers.

If we take the hypothesis that all words beginning [ych], [ysh], [dch], [dsh] should have the initial [y] or [d] removed to yield a word beginning [ch] or [sh], doe that even up the distribution of bench initial words? The table below shows the changes to the distribution of bench initial words, with the original in normal text and the new in bold.

First for [ch]:

Position from left12345
Hand 191 / 227439 / 450350 / 362296 / 305223 / 244
Hand 224 / 82188 / 194170 / 170190 / 194174 / 177
Hand 330 / 134255 / 260229 / 231224 / 228194 / 196

And again for [sh]:

Position from left12345
Hand 196 / 137213 / 216142 / 146142 / 146103 / 103
Hand 236 / 97222 / 222175 / 175131 / 136114 / 118
Hand 347 / 110217 / 219110 / 11095 / 9690 / 90

The result show some improvement in the distribution of bench initial words, which is not a surprise given that the changes were designed with that in mind. However, the range of improvement differs across hands and between [ch] and [sh].

For [ch], none of the improved distributions match well. That of hand 1 is the most improved, and barely reaches the count in position 5. The others are still too far off. It may be that changes to Grove words, as discussed previously, could improve these scores further, but they may still fall short.

For [sh] the story is quite different. For both hand 1 and hand 3 the new distributions seems almost perfect, with position 1 matching positions 3, 4, and 5. (Of course, position 2 is still too high, which is another issue.) For hand 2 the new distributions isn’t nearly as good as must be considered almost as poor as for those beginning [ch].

The number of Grove words for each section is around 45 [pch], 8 [fch], 10 [psh], and 1 [fsh]. The number is difficult to calculate without looking at every example, because some may turn out to genuinely start with a gallows. Removing that gallows to obtain a word starting [ch] or [sh] would be a wrong move. Even so, they still wouldn’t create a good match for bench initial distribution.

The question of what causes the spike in bench initial words in position 2 must be left unanswered. There are several avenues to pursue, such as the preceding word and the glyphs which follow the initial bench in position 2 words.

(This post partly stems from a conversation some time ago with Marco Ponzi about the spike in bench initial words in position 2 of a line.)

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