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What is a compositor?

The compositor played a crucial role in the early printing process. In fact, the compositor could influence the language of a piece.
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This is the second video talk on early modern printing. We focus on the compositors. Let’s consider the consequences of what the compositor did for language. Compositors would supply their own spelling and punctuation preferences. Scholars have suggested that as many as nine compositors were involved in producing the first folio, hence much inconsistency. We have already briefly mentioned one potential source of problems. The compositor set the type upside down. So that it would appear the right way around when printed. This is an obvious source of confusion. A common example is the letter n, leading to mistakes by the word and being spelled with what appears to be a u, but is actually an upside down n.
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Look at the word and before the word black in the example. And obvious problematic area is the reading of the copy-text. Sometimes compositors might skip a line of text repeated or put it in the wrong place. In some accounts, another individual reads the copy-text to the compositor. Again this is a potential source of error as the compositor may have misheard what was said. One thing the compositor did is check for line justification. Today with modern word processing software, we just hit a button to make the text neatly line up on the right hand side. But back then, they had to use other strategies, which had a dramatic effect on the spellings. Let’s see how this would work.
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Compositors added extra e’s at the ends of words, changed the double consonant to a single, or use y instead i in order to line-up the right hand margin. All this made early modern spelling even more variable. Today we can get the computer to do the same job with the click of a button as I did for the text in the bottom half of the slide. In fact, to get my early modern version here to work, I even had to resort to the early modern trick of deleting m or n after a vowel, typically I know, and replacing it with a squiggle or tilde above the O as seen in the word computer.
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The final issue I want to discuss relating to the compositors often has substantial impact on the language. A key task in the first step of preparing the copy-text was to produce estimates of where each printed page would begin and end. These estimates then determined how much paper was needed for the book. However, sometimes the estimates were wrong. And so the compositor had to adapt the text to be printed to get it to fit . To understand the nature of the problem, we need to understand the Quire and how it was printed. As already briefly mentioned, the first folio was made out of quires, three sheets of paper folded once. So that it made six leaves or 12 pages.
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In the graphic, you can see three sheets of paper each folded in half so that there are two leaves and each side of the leaf is a page. So there are 12 pages in total. The graphic also reminds you of what the terms recto and verso mean. For each individual leaf, the left hand side of the side you first encounter when you read it is called the recto. It’s in solid green in the graphic. The right hand side, or what you see on the other side of the leaf when you read it, it is called the verso. It’s in green stripes in the graphic.
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The problem is that the outermost sheet, the one on the right of the graphic was printed first. Specifically pages 6 and 7. And then the reverse of the sheet pages 5 and 8. And then this was repeated for the next sheet starting with pages 4 and 9 and so on. Now the problem is that once you have printed pages 6 and 7, you had more or less fixed how much text could occur on pages 1 to 5.
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Estimates about what text from the copy-text to put in the printed pages 6 and 7 with those crucial pages 8 through to 12 were perhaps less of a problem because the compositor could leave some white space at the end without it looking too bad. But with pages one to five as you continue printing you would be backing yourself into a cul-de-sac. If there was too much space as you approach page 1, the compositor could fairly easily spread the text out by putting in more white space or even in some cases making up a bit of text to pad it out. But the opposite too little space was trickier.
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The compositor would have to start changing the text to get it to fit. They would cut out stage directions, abbreviates, speech prefixes, adopt space saving spellings, or even remove lines of text completely. As one scholar points out the modern parallel is the sports commentator who has to fill a certain slot even if the match has actually finished and therefore has to add in lots of padding. Let’s look at a few of the specific space saving devices used. One such space saving device was to use shortened forms.
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In the example after the word Lord, you do not you do not see the word that, written, T-H-A-T, but instead something looking like a y with a small t more or less above it. The y symbolise the th, the vowel a, has been omitted and the t put in superscript it all saves space. Where possible compositors would use whatever white space is available. Here the word acquainted has been split, but instead of the TED, occurring in the next line it has been put into the empty space above. And of course, one could get rid of text or abbreviate it. Here is an example of a omission.
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In the 1600 Quarto text we see the final line of the dialogue here comes the prince, And Claudio, and the stage direction enter prince and Claudio and two or three other. But in the folio, the final line of dialogue is missing altogether and the stage direction has been abbreviated to Enter and Claudio with attendants. These changes affect the meaning. In the Quarto version the friar acknowledges that he sees the arrival of the prince, and Claudio it heightens tension. Also the stage direction is more precise. We have up to two or three others. In this video talk, we have focused on the role of the compositor and the linguistic implications. Errors, spellings, and line justification, shortened forms, and textual changes.
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This talk concludes our series on early modern printing.

The compositor played a crucial role in the early printing process. In fact, the compositor could influence the language of a piece considerably.

Compositors’ preferences

The compositors (often there was more than one for a substantial work) would supply their own spelling and punctuation preferences. The fact that they set the metal type upside down was an obvious area where errors could creep in. They might also misread a line in the copy text, or accidentally repeat it, or put it in the wrong place. Compositors had no way of doing line-justification automatically, as we do on computers to make the right-hand margin look neat. Instead, they would add extra letters and use other tricks to neaten the lines.

Key alterations – and room for error

Perhaps the key area where quite drastic alterations to the copy-text were made was in getting it to fit on the printed page. Because of the way the sheets of paper were folded, back then you could not print the beginning of the work and then steadily work through to the end. You had to make estimates about how much of the copy text would go on particular pages, and sometimes they got it a bit wrong!

If they did not have enough text for the page, that was less of a problem, because it could be padded out with space. But if they had too much text, they had to adopt various space-saving techniques, including reducing the number of letters in words, splitting words so that the second part might go above a line rather than underneath, and even getting rid of text or substantially abbreviating it.

Getting your head around the folding of the sheets and the implications for preparing the copy text from print is certainly not straightforward.

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