A Look at Last Week’s Medieval and Early Modern ‘Words, Words, Words’

By Jenneka Janzen

It’s taken for granted that learning or working in another language requires some use of a bilingual dictionary. Our favourite online dictionary or translation app relies on established tradition and innovative technology in organizing and presenting information. What does this tradition look like? What were some of its past technologies?

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Last Friday, May 31st, I attended Words, Words, Words: Medieval and Early Modern Dictionaries at Leiden University. Organized as part of a larger Leiden-Oxford Twin Cities week-long event, the colloquium featured several excellent speakers on Western wordlists and glossaries spanning from the 8th century through the 17th century.

The first lecturer was Ed van der Vlist, Curator of Manuscripts at the Koninklijke Bibiotheek Den Haag, who presented a number of medieval manuscripts or fragments featuring Dutch-Latin word-lists. One, Den Haag, KB, 131 F8, (XIV½, Holland) started as a list of Latin synonyms, but began to replace the synonyms with Dutch words. This suggests the list’s intended function as a reference tool designed to clarify difficult or unfamiliar words by providing simpler alternatives. Perhaps, van der Vlist suggested, the author realized the futility of replacing one unknown Latin word with another unfamiliar Latin word, and instead decided to employ his native tongue. Interestingly, this wordlist includes several Dutch words not witnessed in any other text.

A wordlist including Dutch in the Leiden University Collection. Photo courtesy Julie Somers.

A wordlist including Dutch in the Leiden University Collection. Photo courtesy Julie Somers.

Leiden University’s Rolf Bremmer demonstrated how, despite appearing a rather ‘dry’ genre, glossaries are of unique value. With a tradition at least as old as c. 2300 BCE, they are among the earliest witnesses of vernacular in the West, and offer clues to the subjects and texts studied where they were made. Bremmer helpfully outlined different uses for a glossary (i.e. reading in an unfamiliar language, clarifying now-obsolete words in your own language, and understanding jargon), as well as five possible categories: scattered interlinear or marginal gloss; continuous interlinear gloss; glossae collectae; alphabetical glossaries; and class/subject glossaries. He then provided enlightening (and very entertaining) examples of each type. One example (Leiden, VLQ 106, f. 10r) from Northern France c. 900, provides marginal translation of Anglo-Saxon terms for several different types of female elves. Another, the famous Vespasian Psalter (London, British Library, Cotton Vespasian A. I, c. 820), is the earliest extant biblical translation into English.

The Vespasian Psalter, f.30v–31, 8th c., Kent. Note the Old English interlinear gloss.

The Vespasian Psalter, f.30v–31, 8th c., Kent. Note the Old English interlinear gloss.

Paul Hoftijzer of Leiden University and the Bibliotheca Thysiana  provided an intriguing history of the first English-Dutch dictionaries within the context of the extremely close, and sometimes antagonistic, relationship between the two powerful Early Modern empires. He explained how the first English-Dutch dictionary was compiled by Henry Hexham, an English military man living in the Netherlands, in 1647/8. Hexham intended his dictionary for the use of students and merchants, but had a greater vision of promoting, through mutual understanding, unity between the Protestant English and Dutch against their Catholic enemies. A subsequent bilingual dictionary was published in 1691 by Willem Sewel, an Amsterdam author, scholar, and translator. Unlike Hexham, Sewel’s work was unmotivated by ideology. His comprehensive dictionary enjoyed multiple editions over the next century. Several copies can be found in the Leiden University Special Collections.

A Sewel English-Dutch dictionary in the Leiden University collection. Photo courtesy Julie Somers.

A Sewel English-Dutch dictionary in the Leiden University collection. Photo courtesy Julie Somers.

The keynote speaker was Rosamond McKitterick of Cambridge University. A (or the) leading expert in Carolingian written and intellectual culture, she introduced us to a number of Carolingian wordlists in the Leiden University Library. One particular example was especially impressive: Leiden, VLQ 69 is a broad compendium of encyclopaedic knowledge, including a 48-set glossary compiled in St Gall c. 800. She demonstrated an intriguing co-relation between the subjects contained in the manuscript, and the known contents of St Gall’s contemporary library. McKitterick then introduced us to St Gall’s Winithar, a scribe of unknown origins whose hand appears in at least seven extant manuscripts and several charters starting c. 760. Winithar is no mere copyist, but rather a designer of books and compiler of information according to the interests and needs of his brothers. His work includes Codex Sangallensis 238, a 493 page wordlist in quasi-alphabetical order. McKitterick demonstrates that Winithar is an early proponent of a pronounced late 8th-century trend towards the compilation of knowledge and interest in words that is a key feature of Carolingian intellectual pursuit.

Winithar's AB-alphabetical wordlist. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 238, p. 2.

Winithar’s AB-alphabetical wordlist. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 238, p. 2.

Admittedly, I’ve spent little time prior to this colloquium considering dictionaries, wordlists, or glossaries. They are, however, a fascinating insight into the interests and needs of readers across time and space. Further, the various physical presentations of information on the page demonstrate noteworthy technological developments in organizing and expressing knowledge, a topic that many (from codicologists to computer programmers, for instance) will no doubt find engaging.

(On the topic of technological advances in the presentation of knowledge: Words Words Words was opened by Kurt de Belder, Director of Leiden University Library, who presented a number of new technological initiatives designed to ramp up availability of digital materials for research and teaching. Successful recent projects at Leiden University Library (such as Early Dutch Books Online, developed in partnership with University of Amsterdam and the Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag) anticipate larger digital material database projects currently underway with other top Dutch universities.)

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