Interoperability of TEI projects : apotheosis or chimera?

This was the title (sounds better in French) of the closing talk I gave at an interesting workshop last week. A prevous COST-funded meeting in Krakow had brought together Czech, French, Catalan, German, and Polish teams working on several different dictionaries of medieval Latin to elaborate the idea that maybe they could make their various lexica interoperable if only they could agree on a common format, for which the TEI seemed the most plausible candidate. Susanna Allés, the energetic organizer of this workshop, got funding for it from several sources, notably the ALLC (or European Society for Digital Humanities as it now prefers to be known). She also seems to have hit on the wheeze of inviting a number of luminaries to make the case for the TEI dictionary tagset (notably L. Romary, F. Glorieux, P. Banski);  alas, in the event only I turned out to be available. Which was useful for me, since preparing for the workshop meant rediscovering all sorts of dusty and neglected (by me, though not by others) parts of the Guidelines.
The workshop was held in the CSIC (Spanish for CNRS) Istitucio Milà i Fontanals, which occupies a rather grand building conveniently located in the Raval, a picturesque if slightly seedy district of Barcelona to the left of the Ramblas, and we were all accommodated next door in the splendidly-named Investigators’ Residence on Calle Hopital. Barcelona is not a place for those uninterested in food and drink; and we were very well fed, in large quantities, if at strange hours and (on one occasion) after a lengthy walk up town through an unexpected tropical-style deluge. The ravioli stuffed with pears and cheese offered by the resto « En Ville » for lunch was particularly memorable, invidious though it is to single out this one occasion.

More intellectual fare was also on offer, of course. It is always a pleasure to arrive amongst a group of specialists personally unknown to me and from a domain of which I am more or less totally ignorant  to find that word of the TEI has already reached them, and often in a far from superficial way. So I was made very happy indeed to hear Sabine Thuillier (currently working in Madrid on the Diccionario Griego-Espanol but ‘formed’ as they say at the Ecole Nationale des Chartes) evangelise for the TEI as an international open source community, and impressed by the way she is implementing it in a workflow which though its editors remain obstinately based on Word Perfect, remains determed to envisage production of a respectable TEI P5 version.
Similarly, the team responsible for the eLexicon Mediae Latinitatis Polonorum lead by Krzysztof Nowak from Krakow, while maintaining a proper scepticism about some aspects of the TEI’s conceptual model, was clearly persuaded of its virtues as an open standard, notably as evidenced by both the amount of open source software (they mentioned XTF, Philogic, and TXM) and the number of comparable projects (they mentioned the Anglo Norman Dictionary, the Glossarium DuCange, and several others) using TEI. Their workflow starts with an OCR phase, since they are starting from an extensive library of source texts  and then uses LibreOffice and a customised library of styles to enhance it to the point where it can be automaticalty converted to TEI, thus (apparently independently) following the same path as is used by Lodel, OxGarage, Agora, and no doubt others, to combine the user friendliness of a word processing style interface with the rigour of a TEI structured maintenance format.

Catalonia has ambitions (as posters everywhere proclaim) to become politically independent of Spain, and certainly its linguistic independence is a well established fact. As a confirmed non-speaker of either Spanish or Catalan (nor of Basque, Galician, or Portuguese for that matter) I regretfully let the interventions in those languages wash over me, and thus missed out, notably on Jose Manuel de Bustamente’s insights on the relation between textual corpus and dictionary. I did however manage to understand the German colleagues present since they made the effort to speak in English or French, for example Alexandra Gorbrecht from the Trier Centre for Digital Humanities gave a brief overview of the dozen or so dictionaries put together online at with a well designed query interface. Allegedy all of these dictionaries are locally stored in TEI XML, but as this is not currently exposed one cannot tell how consistently it has been done. None of the other major TEI dictionary projects in Germany I am aware of was represented here: presumably because none of them is specifically concerned with Mediaeval Latin. I had to console myself for the absence of Werner Wegstein from Wurzburg by stealing one of his examples for my own talk.
Bruno Bon and Renaud Alexandre from the IRHT in Paris had the advantage, if advantage it be, of being able to develop their proposals for an over-arching Novum Glossarium Mediae Latinitatis on the basis of the already existant complete Glossarium of Du Cange which has been freely available in TEI-inspired XML markup for some time now, thanks to the work of Fréderic Le Glorieux. The idea seems to be to develop a set of proposals able to express the (not inconsiderable) variation in practice amongst these and others working on different lexica of medieval Latin in Europe, and thus create what (inevitably) Bruno suggested would be called NGML (the Novum Glossarium Markup Language). As a first step they have set up an exploratory multilingual wiki with some nice visualisation tools, based on a few sample entries taken from each of the five different lexical projects (specifically, in Barcelona, Prague, Krakow, Munich and Paris), and are inviting more. This could be fun, though I think expressing NGML as a real TEI ODD would be more of a challenge.

Susanna Allés and her graduate student Frédérique Laugrost (on secondment from the Ecole Nationale des Chartes) talked about the specific problems they faced when starting to apply the TEI to the text of their dictionary: the Glossarium Mediae Latinitatis Cataloniae. Many of these are familiar, of course: notably those which derive directly from the wish to preserve the punctuation and use of abbreviation which characterize such sources and at the same time model the logical structure which they determine. Some of these problems do however point to aspects of the current TEI dictionary model which could be improved.

I started making a short list of such points during the workshop, but sadly did not get very far:

  • too many of the proposed TEI dictionary elements relate only to modern lexicographic practice. Deciding which ones to filter out to make a kind of TEI Lite for dictionaries would be very desirable.
  • an element for « translated segment » is desired, even if it is just syntactic sugar for with a value for xml:lang other than that of the surrounding text
  • some dictionaries have entries which are large enough to have multiple paragraphs but there is no place for <p> in any model.entryLike element
  • when a term is identical in two or more languages, can xml:lang take more than one value (I confidently said it could, but I think I am wrong)
  • how should you mark a word which is clearly readable in the text when its meaning is entirely uncertain? (I suggested <orig>, but there must be better ideas)
  • The typology currently used for <form> combines categories from entirely dissimilar taxonomies, e.g @type=lemma is an entirely different kind of thing from @type=compound. Likewise, the typology one might want to use for should be more to do with the way the sense had evolved. To both these points I said (in my best French) « Bof », Or, more precisely, it’s only by receiving proper input from specialists in the field — those best able to define more appropriate typologies — that the TEI progresses…

I’m hoping that the undoubted success of this workshop will encourage the participants to form a SIG on the subject or (as Piotr Banski had previously suggested to several of them) to make an active contribution to the existing LingSig. Plenty of scope for very interesting work to come, not to mention the opportunity of returning to Barcelona for the paella which I somehow failed to find time for on this occasion.