Posts Tagged ‘lexicography’

Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott (1843)

Here’s something I learned only recently: the Liddell of the Lexicon was the father of the Alice of Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass fame. I knew her surname was Liddell and that she lived in Oxford, but the possible connection never occurred to me. Partly it must have been that the Lexicon is so soberly academic and Alice in Wonderland so surreally imaginative. But the connection is appropriate, because classical Greek would be the perfect language to translate Alice in Wonderland into. It has all the necessary richness and subtlety:

Sample from the Lexicon #1 (click for larger)

And the Greek script in its fully developed form, with minuscule letters and diacritics, is much more beautiful than the Roman alphabet. This lexicon is a bibliophile’s delight and it’s easy to download PDFs of the full edition. But I also own a physical copy of an abridgment of it. A real book has advantages over an electronic text. You don’t make happy discoveries by accident as easily with an e-text and you’re cut off from history when you’re reading from a screen. Liddell and Scott worked with paper:

Sample from the Lexicon #2 (click for larger)

Paper was also the medium for most of the poets, historians, philosophers and novelists whose words they define. But not for the most famous of all: Homer’s two great epics were originally composed and transmitted without pen or paper. They were products of the pre-literate Bronze Age, when poets and storytellers relied on memory, not manuscripts. A lot was lost with literacy, but civilization depends on it and this lexicon is one of the great monuments to the influence that Greek civilization still has on the world.

But rich and interesting as this book is, it has one big disadvantage: it’s bilingual (or trilingual if you count the Latin). As I pointed out in my review of a Larousse de Poche, monolingual dictionaries are best for learning a foreign language. If a word in Greek is defined in Greek, then “no officious English word intrud[es]”, as C.S. Lewis put it in Surprised by Joy (1955). Liddell and Scott were good enough scholars to have written entirely in Greek and I wish they had done so. There could have been two Lexicons, one translating Greek into English and one defining Greek in Greek.

No Latin dictionary is so famous as Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, which probably and partly reflects the earthier and more utilitarian nature of Latin. But a Latin lexicon defining Latin in Latin would have been good too and something that Victorian scholars could easily have created.


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Larousse de PocheLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Here are two good tips for anyone learning a foreign language. First, read comics. Second, get a monolingual dictionary. Both are methods of getting your mother-tongue out of the way. If you read comics, you’ll see words illustrated by actions. If you get a monolingual dictionary, you see words illustrated by words. In both cases, you’ll stay inside the world of the language you’re learning, rather than stepping backwards and forwards across a linguistic frontier.

For example, here are some definitions from this Larousse de Poche, or Pocket Larousse:

albâtre n. m. Marbre transparent et tendre. Fig. Blancheur extrême.
béchamel adj et n. f. Sauce blanche faite avec de la crème.
colibri n. m. Oiseau exotique de très petite taille; oiseau-mouche.
fou ou fol, folle n. et adj. Qui a perdu la raison : Charles VI mourut fou.
foudre n. f. Décharge électrique aérienne, accompagnée de tonnerre et d’éclairs. Fig. Coup soudain, rigoureux, irrésistible. Coup de foudre, événement soudain. Amour subit et violent.
glouton, onne adj. et n. Qui mange avec avidité. N. m. Mammifère carnivore des pays froids.
métallurgie n. f. Art d’extraire, de purifier et de traivailler les métaux.
ramoner v. tr. Nettoyer l’intérieur d’une cheminée.
vinagrier n. m. Qui fait et vend du vinaigre. Burette à vinaigre.

If the definitions work right, you’ll understand without an English word intruding. That’s the ideal when you’re learning another language. C.S. Lewis explained it well in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (ch. ix, “The Great Knock”)

If the English word intrudes, you don’t build up your mental muscles in the second language. Or you see the second language in a distorting mirror, rather than looking at it directly. That’s why comics and monolingual dictionaries are good for muscles and eyes.

Even a small dictionary is good. The French lexicon isn’t very big, so this Larousse de Poche usually helps even with the exotic vocabulary of a novel like À Rebours, let alone a straightforward text like Les Hommes Volants. And dictionaries have a literary appeal of their own. A good definition is like a good stroke in cricket, making minimum effort for maximum effect. This definition flies off the bat and skims away for four:

crâne n. m. Boîte osseuse contenant le cerveau.

And if understanding a language is like using a knife to cut into the world, then a bilingual dictionary is like using two knives at once. They get in each other’s way. It’s bad for the weaker knife: it gets blunt and chipped. Using a monolingual dictionary, by contrast, sharpens and shines the weaker knife. My French has never been very good, but I think it’s improved since I’ve started using this dictionary. The Ramones sang about a “Rocket to Russia”, so you could say that this book is a “Pocket to Laroussia” – the world of French in which that famous publisher has worked for so long.

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