Dictionary completed after a century!

December 11, 2013 12:00 am | Updated 02:21 am IST

A monumental dictionary of medieval British Latin has been completed after a century of research and drafting, in a project that spanned the careers of three editors and a small army of contributors.

The 17th, and final, part of The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources is published this week, drawing on more than 1,400 sources from the sixth to the 16th century, including the Domesday Book, the Magna Carta and the Bayeux tapestry.

Latin was used for writing and record-keeping across Europe by clergy, scientists, philosophers, and lawyers for more than a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Medieval British Latin was particularly distinctive because it was affected by the diversity of native spoken languages, including English, French, Irish, Norse, and Welsh.

“If they didn’t know the Latin word for something, it was very common to borrow it from the everyday language,” said Richard Ashdowne, current editor of the dictionary.

“We came across lots of examples of where an Old English or Middle English word turns up in writing in Latin text, and only later in writing in English.” “This is the first ever comprehensive description of the vocabulary of the Latin language used in Britain and by Britons between AD 540 to 1600,” Ashdowne said.

“For the last 100 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 crowd—sourcing.”

Ashdowne said there is also an aspiration to publish the entire work as a digital, open—access edition next year, adding “we haven’t got the funding yet”.

He said: “It’s a difficult question to know how many people are going to use it. Fewer and fewer people know any Latin, but this means that more people will need a dictionary to know how to read it.”

Begun in 1913, it is one of several similar projects ongoing in Europe of which the British dictionary is the most substantial to have been completed.

The dictionary is published by the British Academy.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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