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"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Literature in the News: Dictionary of Medieval Latin Completed After 100 Years

This is rather interesting.  Hat tip to Tom McDonald at his God and the Machine blog for bringing it to my attention.   


Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources completed after 100 years

December 10, 2013

After over 58,000 entries, 3830 pages and seventeen volumes, the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources is now finished. The final volume will be published tomorrow by the British Academy.
Begun in 1913, the finished dictionary is the culmination of a century-long enterprise which has had over 200 researchers working on it over the decades. Based on the writings found in poetry, sermons, chronicles, scientific texts, legal documents, state records, accounts and letters that were created between the years 540 and 1600 by thousands of authors who were born or worked in Britain, the Dictionary includes material from well-known works such as the Domesday Book, Magna Carta and Bayeux tapestry.
Dr Richard Ashdowne, the current editor of the Dictionary and a member of Oxford University’s Faculty of Classics, said, “This is the first ever comprehensive description of the vocabulary of the Latin language used in Britain and by Britons between AD 540 and 1600. For the last hundred years, the project has been systematically scouring the surviving British medieval Latin texts to find evidence for every word and all its meanings and usage.
“Much of this fundamental work was done in the early years of the project by a small army of volunteers, including historians, clergymen, and even retired soldiers. They provided the project with illustrative example quotations copied out from the original texts onto paper slips – an early form of crowdsourcing that had previously been used in the preparation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

“During its existence the project has accumulated an estimated 750,000 such slips. Nowadays, in addition to this invaluable resource, which covers a vast quantity of material only available in the form of the original manuscripts, we also have access to large electronic databases enabling us to examine the works of authors such as the Venerable Bede more thoroughly than ever before.”

The project began on April 6, 1913, when a Mr Robert J Whitwell had a letter printed in The Times in which he called for volunteers to help compile a new dictionary of the Latin used in medieval times. The first volume, which contained the letters A and B was published in 1975. The last word of the last volume is zythum, which means ‘an Egyptian beer’.

Interestingly some of the words of Old and Middle English that were ‘borrowed’ in the Latin language were found in earlier Latin texts than the first appearance of these words in English. Many we still use today in a modern form, for example, the Medieval Latin huswiva corresponds to modern English housewife, found as early as 12th century Latin texts.


What an effort.  That last paragraph I quoted shows you the importance of the work.  It has enlightened us on the etymology and development of English words.  Now I wonder if languages of other nations have attempted and completed such an effort.  If it took a hundred years to complete such an effort from British sources, what would it take to do all Latin sources from the European continent?
They have a website where you can read about the project, learn about medieval Latin, and find out how to obtain or access a copy. 

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