A lexicographical whodunnit, 12 May 2023

Here is the abstract of the talk to be given by Dr. Fredric Dolezal at our Annual Meeting in 2023 (see the Events page for more details).

On First Looking into Louis-Lucien Bonaparte’s Copy of Wilkins’s and Lloyd’s Dictionaries: A Lexicographical Whodunnit

Fredric Dolezal, University of Georgia

While conducting a census of library holdings of John Wilkins’s Essay (1668), which includes topical and alphabetical dictionaries of ordinary English words and phrases, I discovered an intriguing copy which contains copious, even voluminous, handwritten manuscript notes that show a close reading and engagement with the lexicographic content of the print artifact, even to the extent of binding within the text interleaf pages to supplement and expand these notes. Especially interesting is the introduction of illustrative quotations into the Essay from a variety of literary sources – most notably from Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of Tub first printed in 1704 – which most likely precedes Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, and most certainly, the New English Dictionary edited by James Murray. Are we looking at the beginnings of a derivative work of lexicography? Is this a dictionary in progress by an as-yet unknown scribal hand? Or is it the passionate pursuit of an unnamed and unknowable arm-chair intellectual engaged in his or her own textual and semantic analysis? Along the way we will explore how ink, paper, watermarks and the transcribed illustrative quotations offer clues for dating the notes. The audience will be invited to participate in this forensic dictionary whodunnit.

Abstracts of upcoming talks

Here are the abstracts of the talks to be given at our February 2023 seminar (see the Events page for more details).

Nordic loanwords in the English language

Félix Duconseille (Strasbourg)

The goal of this work, as part of my internship during the second year of Master, was to list and index the loanwords coming from Nordic and Uralic languages in the English language, in order to analyse the usage restricted to each language and to certain periods of time. On the basis of the OED dictionary I filtered the loanwords by language of the etymon, then sort them chronologically and by field in order to identify if there were recurrent themes.

My main results were that the words from Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are principally related to the scientific field, and to the geology in particular, whereas those coming from Icelandic are related to the mythology, and the Faeroese loanwords are related to nature. As for the Finnish, loanwords also science terms, but are also related to the culture, as the sauna and the sisu for instance. However, concerning the Hungarian language, in its loanwords, the spelling of origin is regularly respected in English. Nonetheless, the Hungarian loanwords rarely have a clear etymology because of the other languages influences (Italian, Latin, Arabic, Turkish). Furthermore, it is important to note that words coming from Old Norse and Proto-Scandinavian have undergone few changes, and are as quite as the origin word in contemporary English, such as callcake and fast.

To conclude, my results show that the English language, as a Germanic language, had a direct impact with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. Numerous words are related to a specific period of time, and to a very specific context. What is captivating is to notice that some words are used only in a single part of the English-speaking community, or that some words are used with a different spelling, or even another interpretation.

Defining Old English: periodisation in dictionaries of Old English from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century

Dr Rachel Fletcher

Since the Old English began to be established as an object of academic pursuit in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, lexicographers have been attempting to document its vocabulary. In doing so, they have helped to codify the idea of Old English as a period of linguistic history – a stage in the development of English that has certain characteristics and is exemplified by certain medieval texts. However, any attempt at defining precise periods in linguistic history faces an unavoidable challenge in the gradual nature of linguistic change, and historical lexicography is no exception. When we examine dictionaries of Old English more closely, it becomes apparent that their representations of Old English as a period are often unstable and inconsistent. This instability is particularly noticeable when it comes to identifying the end of the Old English period, the point that marks the limit of the dictionary’s coverage of the historical linguistic record.

Using examples from major dictionaries of Old English from the seventeenth century to the present day, I show how generations of lexicographers have wrestled with the question of when the Old English period ended. How have lexicographers reconciled – or failed to reconcile – the gradual nature of linguistic change with the definitive character expected of a dictionary? What can this tell us about developments in lexicography and in History of English scholarship, and what are the implications for the study of Old English today?