Early history of the dictionary in England

by Joanna Sobala

copyright 2001

The availability, format and wide use of dictionaries are taken for granted in our modern written literary culture. And yet the roots of this probably most useful literary tool are to be found in the ancient and medieval periods when oral communication was predominant. (Hüllen 49) In England, as in other European countries, the spread of Latin texts and Latin education led to glossing and production of glossaries as new people endeavored to master the classical language. Yet eventually the tool used to help spread Latin education became an important element in the development of vernacular culture as a larger and larger Old English vocabulary was recorded in the growing glossaries.

The beginnings of English glossography are to be found in the seventh century in the celebrated Canterbury school of Theodore and Hadrian. Theodore was a Greek-speaking monk from Asia and Hadrian a Latin-speaking African, and the classical curriculum of their school included both Greek and Latin. Scholars argue that the so called 'original English collection' of glosses, which served as a source for many later English as well as continental glossaries, was developed in the Canterbury school. (Lapidge )

Glosses, i.e. explanations of words inserted between the lines of a text (interlinear glosses) or in the margins (marginal glosses), marked the first step in the development of what we may call 'pre-dictionaries'. These glosses could be occasional or continuous. Since they were intended to elucidate a specific text or lemma, they were context-bound. Often these glosses were not written with ink but scratched in the velum with a stylus, and this dry point notation makes them difficult to read for modern scholars. (Lendinara 3, 4)

The texts glossed were not so much the Latin classics as the core Christian works such as the Psalter, Hymns, Canticles of the Psalter, Monastic Canticles, Gospel texts, texts relating to the Benedictine reform, and a useful collection of biblical and patristic quotations. Ælfric's Colloquium was also often glossed as well as the Latin works of important Christian writers such as Aldhelm, Prudentius, St. Augustine, Bede, Boethius, Gregory the Great, Isidore and Jerome. (Derolez 27-29, Hüllen 59)

Often glosses were separated from the text and collected together on a separate manuscript. These glossae collectae generally preserved their original inflections and order of words and thus could be easily used by a reader of the original Latin work. The glosses were freed from their original context only when used by glossators to form part of glossaries. However, even after such process of incorporation, it is still possible to distinguish 'batches' of words whose order corresponds to a particular text which they originally glossed. (Derolez 16-18, Lendinara 9-10, Hüllen 56-7)

Production of glossaries involved selective copying and rearrangement of material from various sources. Glossaries could now be used to help elucidate more than one text. They could also be used as learning aids by providing lists of Latin words and their explanations for memorization. The usability and function of the glossaries was largely determined by their format which was of two kinds. Class glossaries were organized by various subjects, such as names of birds, animals, tools, trades, which were largely copied from classical sources. Ælfric's Glossary, which was a supplement to his Latin Grammar, is a well-known example. The classes and words had a source in Isidore's Etymologies but were less encyclopedic in scope, avoiding obscure names and sources. The work was intended as a study aid for new learners of Latin and thus it provided a vocabulary of ordinary life--a feature unusual for medieval glossaries which dealt mostly with learned vocabulary or 'hard' words. (Healey, Derolez 26)

The second type of glossary was organized alphabetically, i.e. in a way which eventually became predominant and which is most familiar to us. However, the alphabetization was not absolute. Initially, it was limited to the first letter (A-order), then it spread to the first two and eventually first three letters (AB-order and ABC-order), thus increasing efficiency of use. The Épinal Glossary, the earliest Latin-Old English glossary based on many sources, is organized alphabetically albeit in two systems: one group of lemmata is arranged in the A-order and another in the AB-order. It is a 'hard-word' glossary which contains about 3200 entries of which only about 30% have Old English glosses; the rest have Latin explanations. Later important glossaries, such as the Erfurt Glossary or the Corpus Glossary, were largely influenced by this early work. (Healey)

The development from glosses through glossae collectae to alphabetical glossaries marks the growing need and popularity of these learning tools. Although scholars still speculate about exact uses of the glossaries, it is probable that they served a function similar to that of a modern dictionary, especially when their size and format, like that of the Harley glossary with 12-14,000 entries in ABC-order, approached those of a dictionary. Scholars judge that all or most English libraries in the early Medieval period and later in the 10th and 11th centuries were equipped with glossaries but that no 'standard glossary' was in existence. (Gneuss III 20-21)

It is also worth noting that the information offered in glossaries was not limited to semantics; often the glossators provided grammatical and syntactical information, notes on prosody (in poetical texts), explanation of figures of speech, etymological interpretation and even encyclopedic information. (Derolez 33-35, Lendinara 6-7) On the other hand, we also find examples of disarming admission of failure to translate a particular Latin word; when Ælfric got to the word cypressus ('cypress'), he simply wrote "it has no English name" (Healey). Yet more often the glossators were successful in translation and able to provide plenty of glossographic information. Not surprisingly, they often used abbreviations or 'construe marks' in form of successive letters, Roman numerals, combinations of dots and dashes--all of which made their work easier and our work more difficult. (Derolez 34)

The glossographical tradition continued into the Middle English period. A 13th century Worcester scribe, known as the 'tremulous hand' because of his shaky handwriting, is an interesting example because he glossed Old English with Latin or Middle English glosses. Finally in the 15th century a Dominican friar Geoffrey the Grammarian used an earlier Latin-English glossary, the Medulla grammatica (ca. 1400), to compile the first English-Latin bilingual list entitled Promptorium pervulorum (1440) which comprised some 10,000 items and was printed in 1499. With printing the practice of alphabetization established itself firmly as the physical act of constructing a text type from separate metal letter pieces arranged alphabetically in wooden compartments influenced the printers' and then other people's way of thinking about words. Printing also meant that a greater number of copies could be produced more easily and thus wordbooks became more popular and proved a commercial success. A stimulated interest in the vernacular led to production of different interlingual works such as Welsh-English (1547) and Italian-English (1599). Finally a first important monolingual English dictionary Table Alphabeticall was compiled by Robert Cawdrey in 1603. The word dictionary entered English with work of Sir Thomas Elyot who in 1538 called his Latin and English wordbook a Dictionary but it took some time for the word to replace the glossaria, medullae, promptuaria and other generic names. (Stein 76-7, McArthur 77-87)

Selected Bibliography-For Further Reading

Derolez, René. "Anglo-Saxon Glossography: A Brief Introduction." Anglo-Saxon Glossography: Papers read at the International Conference Brussels, 8 and 9 September 1986. Brussels: Paleis der Academiën, 1992.
This is only one of the many papers from the Brussels conference on Old English glossography and it is a relatively good introduction to the subject.

Franzen, Christine. The Tremulous Hand of Worcester: A Study of Old English in the Thirteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
A study of the work of a 13th century scribe-glossator known as the 'tremulous hand' because of his shaky handwriting. His shakiness was a result of an illness which progressed with time thus offering scholars a unique opportunity to date and study his glosses as the handwriting worsened.

Gneuss, Helmut. Language and History in Early England. Aldershot: Variorum, 1996.
This book is a collection of essays by Gneuss previously published separately in different scholarly periodicals. Essays number III and V have some interesting information about glosses and glossaries which, as the title of the book suggests, are treated within a larger context of English language and history of the times.

Healey, Antonette di Paolo. "Old English Glossaries: Creating a Vernacular." http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/epc/chwp/healey/
A well-written and informative article on Old English glosses and glossaries. A good introduction to the subject.

Hogg, Richard, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 1. Cambridge: UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
The CHEL has no separate section on Old English glosses but for anyone interested in the study of glosses in relation to Anglo-Saxon dialectology the chapter on "Old English dialects" may be of some use.

Hüllen, Werner. English Dictionaries 800-1700: the Topical Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.
Chapter 3 from this book is a look at the Old English glosses and glossaries within a broader context of the world of learning in the Medieval times. Other related materials, such as classical hermeneumata, ars memorativa, colloquies and nominales are discussed. Onomasiology, i.e. observation of how meaning is expressed, is the main focus of the author. This interesting approach is refreshing for those tired of overly technical scholarly analysis.

Lapidge, Michael. "The School of Theodore and Hadrian" Anglo-Saxon England 15 (1986): 45-72.
Article for people interested in the early Medieval English culture and the beginnings of glossography. Discussion of the work of Theodore and Hadrian who established the Canterbury School in 7th century. The importance and international influence of the school (and especially of the glossaries - 'original English collection') are stressed.

Lendinara, Patrizia. Anglo-Saxon Glosses and Glossaries. Aldershot: Variorum, 1999.
The first chapter of this book is a very well organized introduction to the subject of Old English glosses and glossaries. It is interesting to note that the author does not agree with Steine's approach of treating these OE materials under the rubric of dictionaries.

McArthur, Tom. Worlds of Reference: Lexicography, learning and language from the clay tablet to the computer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
An interesting and accessible account of cultural, technological, economic and political changes from the ancient times to the present with a special focus of their impact and relation to the development of reference tools. The chapters on the Early Modern World trace the development of 'pre-dictionaries'. The impact of the invention of printing is especially stressed.

Merit, Herbert Dean. Old English Glosses (A Collection). London: Oxford University Press, 1945.
A collection of Old English glossaries useful to people who want to look at primary sources.

Stein, Gabrielle. The English Dictionary before Cowdrey. Lexicographica, Series Maior. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1985.
This book is not only about dictionaries but also about glossaries and vocabularies. It starts with Anglo-Saxon glossaries and ends with the first monolingual English dictionary Table Alphabeticall (1604) by Robert Cawdrey. The material is organized chronologically and each chapter focuses on one or two texts. Each text is described in detail and special attention is given to lemmatization, inclusion of grammatical or other information, and introduction of citations or illustrations. Extract from each work and list of editions conclude each chapter. This resource is best for people who have some basic knowledge of the history of dictionaries and want to focus on a specific text or on comparison of texts.