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A brief History of Dictionaries 

A brief History of Dictionaries

We have all used a dictionary at some point in our lives. But how many of us have questioned the nature of the reference work we are reading or how it was evolved? It’s tempting to think that there can be little argument about what a dictionary is or at least what it should be.

But if you believe that dictionaries have always been monolingual reference works with words and their meanings listed in alphabetical order, think again!

What is the meaning of a word anyway? Is it what scholars deem to be correct or is it how that word is used in the real world? In other words (forgive the pun), should the meanings provided by dictionaries be prescriptive or descriptive?

Since the first examples were compiled, dictionaries have variously been prescriptive, descriptive, multilingual and monolingual. Most have not been created to encompass every word in any given language. Instead, they have been created to help people understand the language or terminology of a specific subject, industry or theme.

The dictionaries of ancient civilisations

The earliest reference works that we might think of as dictionaries date back more than 4,000 years. Tablets featuring lists of words have been found in the region we now know as Syria. These were created around 2300 BCE during the time of the Akkadian Empire, a Mesopotamian civilisation. The tablets weren’t truly dictionaries but rather bilingual glossaries. You could say that they were the earliest form of translation tool.

ancient civilisations

The earliest monolingual dictionary that has survived is the Erya, a Chinese collection of glosses (brief notations) that is thought to date back to the third century BCE. It was essentially a dictionary, glossary, thesaurus and encyclopaedia in one work. The Eyra contained 2094 entries and was divided into nineteen sections by subject. The last seven sections covered flora and fauna, making the book an important natural history reference work. Its author has never been confirmed but the Erya has been attributed by many to Confucius.

The earliest dictionaries were organised in themes or subjects rather than alphabetically. They provided explanations of difficult words associated with specific aspects of life such as religious documents and literature. They did not encompass common speech and writing. For example, in the 4th century BCE Philitas of Cos wrote Ἄτακτοι γλῶσσαι (Disorderly Words). This explained the meanings of Homeric and other literary words together with technical terms.

The development of dictionaries in the Common Era

The first Sanskrit dictionary, the Amarakośa, was written in the 4th century CE and contained around 10,000 words. The first Japanese dictionary was the Niina glossary of Chinese characters and was written in 682 CE, but this work has since been lost and never recovered. The oldest Japanese dictionary to have survived is the Tenrei Banshō Meigi, written circa 835 CE. This was also a glossary of Chinese characters.

One of the earliest European dictionaries was the Sanas Cormaic, written in the 9th century CE. This Irish dictionary contained explanations of more than 1400 words. In the 12th century CE, the Turkic scholar Mahmud Kashgari completed his Divan-u Lügat’it Türk. This was a dictionary of Turkic dialects containing over 7,000 words that was created to teach Arab Muslims the Turkic language.

In medieval Europe, a number of Latin glossaries were created including the Catholicon, written in 1287 by Johannes Balbus. This dictionary featured an alphabetical lexicon and was widely adopted. It was one of the first books to be printed.

During the 14th century in Egypt, Ebû Hayyân el-Endelüsî wrote his Kitâbü’l-İdrâk li-lisâni’l-Etrâk, a dictionary about the Kipchak and Turcoman languages.

ancient civilisations

Between the 8th and 14th centuries, a number of Arabic dictionaries were produced. These were arranged in various ways with some having entries being organised in rhyme order (by the last syllable). Others, mainly specialist dictionaries, were arranged in alphabetical order of the first letter, the system that is now used in modern European language dictionaries.

The first dictionaries in English featured explanations in both English and French of Latin terms. This was because all three languages were in use simultaneously in Britain at the dawn of the Renaissance. The languages were used for different purposes such as religion, politics and commerce and so inspired the need for reference works to explain them.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that monolingual dictionaries that were significant in scope were complied. Until this time, dictionaries were primarily translation tools. Monolingual dictionaries had been created over the centuries. But these were generally compiled only to explain unusual words or the terminology of specific subjects, not commonly used words. It was only in the 19th century that scholars embraced the idea that dictionaries should contain all words that were in common use.

Monolingual European dictionaries

European monolingual dictionary

The first European monolingual dictionary was Tesoro de la lengua castellana o Española, a Spanish work, written by Sebastián Covarrubias. This was published in 1611 and was to serve as a model for similar dictionaries produced in French and English. These included the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française that appeared in 1694. It is still published to this day. During the 18th and 19th centuries, monolingual dictionaries became increasingly common and were compiled in many European countries. The need for dictionaries increased when a greater proportion of the European population had gained access to education and became literate.

Dr Johnson and English dictionaries

Several English dictionaries had been written before Dr Johnson produced his iconic work, A Dictionary of the English Language, which was first published in 1755. But the earlier dictionaries featured far fewer words and were not considered to contain reliable information. Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeicall contained 2,543 words, whereas Johnson’s tome contained 42,773 words that were arranged alphabetically.

History of Dictionaries

Johnson’s listings featured references to the usage of the words and his work became the standard English dictionary. It wasn’t supplanted as the standard reference work until the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was published in its entirety in 1928. The OED was an enormous project that took far longer than initially anticipated. It was published in fascicles (instalments) until it was finally completed 44 years after work to compile it began. The OED has been continually updated ever since to reflect new words and usages. In 1992 it became available on CD-ROM.

Despite the impressive scope of the OED and similar dictionaries in other languages, most still do not include many of the most commonly used words – swear words.

Dictionaries in the electronic age

Until the 20th century, whether written in stone or printed on paper, a dictionary was always a physical entity. Things are very different now. Advances in technology have seen dictionaries become available in the form of electronic data that can be accessed in a variety of ways.

Most of the early electronic dictionaries were merely the content of printed dictionaries made available in electronic form. However, while the content was the same, electronic forms of dictionaries offered search functions that made them far more useful. Digital dictionaries presented many new and exciting possibilities that have since been exploited.

History of Dictionaries

Electronic dictionaries are essentially databases. There is no limit to their size and their compilers do not need to be mindful of the amount of space the information will take up. Such databases can include reference sections, verb conjugations, interactive features and even video clips. Both general and specialist electronic dictionaries are available online, as downloads, on CD-ROM or in the form of portable devices.

Dictionaries for natural language processing

Traditional dictionaries are reference works designed to be used by people, whether they are databases or in print. Dictionaries for natural language processing are built to be used by computer software. These do not have content arranged in linear fashion – they are complex networks of information. Most of these dictionaries are used for machine translation and so have multilingual content that is enormous in scope.

What is a dictionary?

History of Dictionaries

Dictionaries have come a long way since the first examples were etched into stone tablets. Once limited in size and usually multilingual, they became monolingual and much larger in scope. Dictionaries were originally works that addressed specific subjects or themes. But then ambitious scholars attempted to include every word of a language in a single dictionary. Later, new technology removed any limitations on the scope of such reference works. Globalisation and rapid advances in technology inspired a return to the creation of multilingual and specialist dictionaries. Now, dictionaries are built not only to help humans but to support computer software in producing accurate and appropriate translations.

It would be difficult to define exactly what a dictionary is as dictionaries vary so greatly in their form, purpose and scope.

While dictionaries are usually considered to be authoritative and factual, they are always to some extent subjective, as the information they contain has been researched, chosen and defined by humans.

We understand that all languages are fluid, changing greatly over time. The generally accepted meanings of words can change, new words are invented and words are borrowed from other languages. No dictionary is ever finished, it is always a work in progress, whatever its form.

Dictionaries for natural language processing

#Dictionaries #englishlanguagedevelopment

James Myatt

6 min read

Apr 2, 2022



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