Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sex, Lies, and ... Dictionaries?!

Yes, the title 's just a little bit misleading this month, I know, but you try making somebody sit up and read a text this length just about ... dictionaries! Yes, in fact even the very word ‘dictionary’ is misleading, as everybody knows that those damned books are no good for improving your diction at all. Have you ever tried finding out just how to pronounce even one difficult word with the help of a dictionary? Try looking up ‘tarsometarsus’ or ‘condyloma’ and see how far you get. All those funny squiggles and symbols are no real help to anybody, are they.

Yet ironically dictionaries were originally devised for just that purpose - to show the interested but ignorant Joe Public the correct way to say ‘excoriate’, ‘modus operandi’ and other so-called ‘hard words’, which had been imported into English from Latin and Greek. In fact, my Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology (that means the origin, formation and development of words to you unenlightened suckers) states that the word ‘dictionary’ first stepped into our language in the 16th century, and is derived from the medieval Latin word ‘dicto’, meaning ‘word’ or ‘phrase’. That’s no great surprise, you might rightly sigh, but hold your criticism a little longer, I beg.

In previous articles I have mentioned that ‘correctness’ in language use started to become an issue in England around the late 17th century, with the publications of various ‘grammars’ designed to educate the unlettered in composing a proper sentence. Well, in the late 18th century Pronunciation Dictionaries began appearing also, again to satisfy the doctrine of correctness. One of these infernal books was John Waller’s “A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary” of 1791, which provided helpful lists of ‘rules for attaining a just pronunciation of English’.

Waller shared with his (almost) contemporary Doctor Samuel Johnson, that compiler of the first widely-acclaimed ‘proper’ dictionary of English in 1755, an unashamed disrespect for the abundance of accents and dialects that were common in England at that time. However, although he acknowledged the wide range of provincial ‘Englishes’, he offered his dictionary as a means for such mere backwoods types to improve their manners of speaking: a sort of ‘Teach Yourself King’s English’. His real bile, however, he reserved for the lower classes of the capital: “the Cockney jabber” he excoriated, “though not half so erroneous as that of any of the provinces, is, to a person of correct taste, a thousand times more offensive and disgusting.” Cor blimey, guvnor, wo’d’yermean!

Strange as it may seem, the world’s most famous catalogue of our language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), did not appear until towards the end of the 19th century. This authoritative work was in fact published only after several decades of painstaking research and investigation by the Philological Society, originally set up in 1858. Similar to its predecessors, this encyclopaedia of our tongue also shared a contempt for the spoken language of the nation, as it devoted its entire attention to the nation’s literary past in its quest to establish a standard of English that would be deemed ‘acceptable’.

Moreover, in the Society’s original proposal there was no mention made of the pronunciation of words, whereas the origins, history and relationships of words were to receive prominence. For example, the word ‘folk’ is traced right back to its Teutonic origins, meaning ‘people, army, detachment’, and paralleled with the Slavonic and Russian word ‘polk’, denoting a division of an army; even the Lithuanian ‘pulkas’ (crowd) is included in the entry. So, not much help with your diction there, but immensely edifying, nevertheless.

Now, hold on a bit, as this is where things take a slight twist. There is an argument that goes something along the following lines. Several contemporary critics from the far left of the political spectrum have stated that the OED was a reflection of that era’s preoccupation with nationalism. In other words, by helping to create an artificial bridge between the classes, the historical study of the nation’s language and literature provided solid grounds for the foundation of an unwarranted patriotism. Sounds convincing? Maybe not, but surely interesting, anyway.

Also playing a small part in this theory of conspiracies is a colonial chappie by the name of Webster. Arguably the most influential individual compiler of dictionaries, Mr Noah Webster was the pioneering lexicographer who almost single-handedly gave us, for better or worse, American English. In fact he predated the publication of the OED by around a century, and had the good sense to look into the future rather than the past in compiling his project. Fortunately (or not, according to your view; but you’ve done well to make it this far through the article), this guy fully deserves a chapter all to himself, so I’ve decided to spare you his achievements until next week.

Anyway, now you know why a dictionary is not really a ‘dictionary’ at all, but more of a ‘wordbook’, which is what it is rightly called in most other languages. Feel better for that, do you?