Profiling the Female Emigrant: A Method of Linguistic Inquiry for Examining Correspondence Collections

Emma Moreton

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    Mass emigration from Ireland to the United States in the nineteenth century has been examined in terms of its economic, political and social impact on both home and the New World. Drawing on a range of sources such as census information, shipping records and other public documentation, research suggests that during this period there was an increase in migration amongst females, mostly single women in their late teens and early twenties.1 Knowing that it was unlikely they would ever return to Ireland, the letter was the main method through which these young women kept in touch with loved ones back home. Over the past few decades there has been a growing interest in the emigrant letter and how this type of source might inform our understanding of social history during the postal era of globalisation. The sourcing, preservation and documentation of emigrant letter collections are growing, and whilst their value as sociohistorical artefacts is generally accepted, finding the best means to exploit such resources is yet to be agreed upon. For David Gerber, emigrant letters have generally been used in one of two ways: to ‘provide color and drama in historical narratives, or to document societal-level and group-level generalizations’, or as edited collections which ‘let the letter-writers speak for themselves, while providing some background information that enables readers to place the [author] in the general societal framework of a certain place and time’.2 Influential studies such as William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, Charlotte Erickson’s Invisible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century America, Kerby Miller’s Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, and Walter Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich and Ulrike Sommer’s News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home, have demonstrated the value in using personal letters to gain a fuller, multi-perspectival understanding of both the complex social processes of emigration (such as push/pull factors and the role of institutions and communities) and the conditions and daily lives of the emigrants themselves.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)617-646
    JournalGender and History - Special Issue: Gender History Across Epistemologies
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2012

    Bibliographical note

    Author's note: Significance, Rigour and Originality of the Output: -
    Correspondence collections are of great interest to those working within the academy, and also to schools, community groups and private individuals who are interested in researching the lives and experiences of letter writers. Until recently correspondence research has concentrated on letters written by more privileged members of society, but interest has been growing in the letters of emigrants, belonging to all social classes. Emigrant letters are expressive and indicative of correspondents' identities, values, preoccupations and beliefs; they are a powerful source of information and understanding about migration issues, provide a colourful picture of domestic life from an emigrant perspective, and shed light on processes of language change and variation. Although many of these letters have now been digitised, not all are properly archived; some are reduplicated and others are in danger of being lost. The documentation and preservation of such letters is a particularly pressing need.
    Most existing digital letter collections consist of unannotated versions of original manuscripts. The digitalisation process has made the letters more accessible to academics and the general public, and has also increased their searchability, at least to a certain extent. Unfortunately, however, emigrant correspondence projects have almost always evolved independently of one another, and although project teams have been successful in tackling important research questions relating to social history and immigration studies they have not joined forces, or engaged with stakeholder groups from other disciplines. Moreover, relatively few projects have moved beyond the digitisation stage to exploit text content and enhance usability and searchability through the use of corpus techniques and tools. Different letter collections cannot easily interconnect if they are simply digitised without annotation and markup, and some search pathways through the material will remain unavailable if software tools are not employed to process this encoding.
    The purpose of this paper is to propose a new method for investigating letter collections – one which draws on advances in digital technologies to analyse large-scale correspondence corpora. The ideas that are proposed/discussed in this paper feed into a larger project which aims to bring together the various stakeholder groups working with emigrant letter collections to discuss issues and challenges surrounding digitisation, build capacity relating to correspondence annotation and the use of corpus tools, and initiate the process of interconnecting resources to encourage cross-disciplinary research. We (Hilary Nesi / Emma Moreton) have already applied to the AHRC Digital Transformations Research Networking Scheme for funding to hold a series of workshops and seminars on the theme of digitising letter collections (we are currently awaiting the outcome) and we are now working on a second application to the AHRC Large Grant Scheme.
    As a result of this paper (and the work we are doing at Coventry with various letter collections (including the digitisation and markup of 500 letters from the BT Archive – see below for details of this JISC funded project)) I have been invited to be a panel discussant on the theme digitising and annotating historical letter collections at the 2014 Berkshire Conference on Women’s History. I was also invited to a workshop at Utrecht University where we (a group of approx. 15 international scholars) set up the COLOC (Corpora of Lower Order Correspondence) research group.


    • female emigrant letters
    • Irish migration to America
    • corpus linguistics
    • gender history.


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