Multilingual Dictionaries and Grammars

              Dictionaries were among the first and most popular reference books to be printed in the early modern period. The form and general organization of Latin dictionaries were already well established from the manuscript period, but typesetting allowed a number of refinements and a wider distribution. Interest in classical languages and reference works to aid in the continuation of classical education only increased with the rise of humanism. From printed versions of manuscript dictionaries of classical languages, these books were often expanded into multilingual volumes including a variable number and set of vernacular languages and literatures, fitting into the growing encyclopedic tradition.

              In the manuscript tradition, readers of classical and biblical texts often provided explanations or translations as glosses (notes within the text) or separate handwritten word lists. These formed a necessary bridge for readers to connect with older texts, as well as forming the basis of a tradition of textual commentaries and companion reference texts to religious and classical works. Much of the basic organization of reference texts was already in place in manuscript word lists. Both topical and alphabetical organization were used for different books, although manuscript alphabetization was sometimes more rudimentary, grouping words only by their first two letters. Print volumes also replaced the use of multicoloured ink and white space with differentiated type faces and sizes to aid the reader in deciphering the dictionary entries; multilingual volumes often rendered different languages in different type faces.

              Early print dictionaries were often more literary in nature than their modern analogs. Rather than concerning themselves only with definitions and grammar, many included examples from literature and references to the places a word could be found in classical works. Others include not only single words but entire phrases and proverbs—the line between a dictionary or word list and a more literary reference work like Erasmus’ Adagia (several editions of which are among CRRS holdings and can be seen in, were especially unclear in early volumes. Many of the works on display here contain a great deal of literary and philological content that would not be found in a modern dictionary.

              The centrality of Latin and of the classical and biblical traditions as sources for words worthy of inclusion in early volumes gave way to a greater concern with vernacular sources. Later bilingual dictionaries were often either guides to Latin or Greek for speakers of a specific vernacular or translation aids between two vernacular languages. This later period also saw an interest in vernacular languages as objects of study in themselves, with etymological dictionaries showing a budding interest in historical linguistics.

              Grammatical content formed a small part of many multilingual dictionaries—especially bilingual ones geared toward learners—but the 17th century saw an increase in publication of grammar books in their own right, as well as a burgeoning genre of educational texts in general. On display in the final section of this exhibit are three examples of such books, which use one vernacular language as the medium of instruction to teach a classical language (in these examples, Latin).

              The following sections trace the development of a bilingual and multilingual dictionary tradition from its roots in the early reference tradition of humanist scholarship to educational volumes where language itself was the object of curiosity. Along the way we will see the solidification of organizational and typographic conventions that link language reference books from the early modern period to those that we use in language classrooms today. The volumes showcased here are only a small selection of CRRS's rich holdings in this area, and have been selected to be both visually and historically interesting.


References and Further Reading:

Blair, Ann. 2010. Too much to know: managing scholarly information before the modern age. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.

Considine, John. 2008. Dictionaries in early modern Europe: lexicography and the making of heritage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mugglestone, Lynda. 2011. Dictionaries: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Credits: Exhibit created by Sarah Courtney. Photography by Sarah Courtney and Taylor Tryburski.

Multilingual Dictionaries and Grammars