English lexicography. The history of English lexicography.Lexicography is a branch of lingustics that studies the vocabulary of a language and the properties of words and the main units of a language.
Lexicography, that is the theory and practice of compiling dictionaries, is an important branch of applied linguistics. The fundamental paper in lexicographic theory was written by L.V. Shcherba as far back as 1940.A complete bibliography of the subject may be found in L.P. Stupin’s works.
The father of English lexicography is Doctor Samuel Johnson. American lexicography – Neah Webster.The history of dictionary-making for the English language goes as far back as the Old English period where its first traces are found in the form of glosses of religious books with interlinear translation from Latin. Regular bilingual English-Latin dictionaries were already in existence in the 15th century.
The unilingual dictionary is a comparatively recent type. The first unilingual English dictionary, explaining words by English equivalents, appeared in 1604. It was meant to explain difficult words occurring in books. Its title was “A Table Alphabeticall, containing and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usuall English words borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine or French”. The little volume of 120 pages explaining about 3000 words was compiled by one Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster. Other books followed, each longer than the preceding one. The first attempt at a dictionary including all the words of the language, not only the difficult ones, was made by Nathaniel Bailey who in 1721 published the first edition of his “Universal Etymological English Dictionary”. He was the first to include pronunciation and etymology.
Dr Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary published in 1755.1 The idea of purity involved a tendency to oppose change, and S. Johnson’s Dictionary was meant to establish the English language in its classical form, to preserve it in all its glory as used by J. Dryden, A. Pope, J. Addison and their contemporaries. In conformity with the social order of his time, S. Johnson attempted to “fix” and regulate English. This was the period of much discussion about the necessity of “purifying” and “fixing” English, and S. Johnson wrote that every change was undesirable, even a change for the best. When his work was accomplished, however, he had to admit he had been wrong and confessed in his preface that “no dictionary of a living tongue can ever be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding and some falling away”. The most important innovation of S. Johnson’s Dictionary was the introduction of illustrations of the meanings of the words “by examples from the best writers", as had been done before him in the dictionary of the French Academy. Since then such illustrations have become a “sine qua non” in lexicography; S. Johnson, however, only mentioned the authors and never gave any specific references for his quotations. Most probably he reproduced some of his quotations from memory, not always very exactly, which would have been unthinkable in modern lexicology. The definitions he gave were often very ingenious. He was called “a skilful definer”, but sometimes he preferred to give way to sarcasm or humour and did not hesitate to be partial in his definitions. The epithet he gave to lexicographer, for instance, is famous even in our time: a lexicographer was ‘a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge ...’. The dictionary dealt with separate words only, almost no set expressions were entered. Pronunciation was not marked, because S. Johnson was keenly aware of the wide variety of the English pronunciation and thought it impossible to set up a standard there; he paid attention only to those aspects of vocabulary where he believed he could improve linguistic usage. S. Johnson’s influence was tremendous. He remained the unquestionable authority on style and diction for more than 75 years. The result was a lofty bookish style which received the name of “Johnsonian” or “Johnsonese”.
As to pronunciation, attention was turned to it somewhat later. A pronouncing dictionary that must be mentioned first was published in 1780 by Thomas Sheridan, grandfather of the great dramatist. In 1791 appeared “The Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language” by John Walker, an actor. The vogue of this second dictionary was very great, and in later publications Walker’s pronunciations were inserted into S. Johnson’s text — a further step to a unilingual dictionary in its present-day form.
The Golden Age of English lexicography began in the last quarter of the 19th century when the English Philological Society started work on compiling what is now known as “The Oxford English Dictionary” (OED), but was originally named “New English Dictionary on Historical Principles”. It is still occasionally referred to as NED.
The conception of this new type of dictionary was born in a discussion at the English Philological Society. It was suggested by Frederick Furnivall, later its second titular editor, to Richard Trench, the author of the first book on lexicology of the English language. Richard Trench read before the society his paper “On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries", and that was how the big enterprise was started. At once the Philological Society set to work to gather the material, volunteers offered to help by collecting quotations. Dictionary-making became a sort of national enterprise. A special committee prepared a list of books to be read and assigned them to the volunteers, sending them also special standard slips for quotations. By 1881 the number of readers was 800, and they sent in many thousands of slips. The tremendous amount of work done by these volunteers testifies to the keen interest the English take in their language.
The first part of the Dictionary appeared in 1884 and the last in 1928. Later it was issued in twelve volumes and in order to accommodate new words a three volume Supplement was issued in 1933. These volumes were revised in the seventies. Nearly all the material of the original Supplement was retained and a large body of the most recent accessions to the English language added.
The principles, structure and scope of “The Oxford English Dictionary", its merits and demerits are discussed in the most comprehensive treaty by L.V. Malakhovsky. Its prestige is enormous. It is considered superior to corresponding major dictionaries for other languages. The Oxford University Press published different abridged versions. “The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles” formerly appeared in two volumes, now printed on thinner paper it is bound in one volume of 2,538 pages. It differs from the complete edition in that it contains a smaller number of quotations. It keeps to all the main principles of historical presentation and covers not only the current literary and colloquial English but also its previous stages. Words are defined and illustrated with key quotations.
“The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English” was first published in 1911, i.e. before the work on the main version was completed. It is not a historical dictionary but one of current usage. A still shorter form is “The Pocket Oxford Dictionary”.
Another big dictionary, also created by joined effort of enthusiasts, is Joseph Wright’s “English Dialect Dictionary”.