On the art and science of writing dictionaries

02.09.2015 | The Maxwell Institute

Or, thoughts on a new publication from CPART director Kristian Heal

Lexicography is both the practical business writing of dictionaries as well as the art and science behind it. Samuel Johnson’s famous English dictionary (1755) may be a high point in lexicography as art, but since his day the science has come far. Each language presents its own unique challenges to lexicographers and requires critical study. CPART’s Kristian Heal and Alison G. Salveson (Oxford University) are the editors of a new volume that is the latest in a series devoted to Syriac lexicography. Congratulations to both the editors and the contributors.

Some might say this book is of more interest to specialists than to general readers. Perhaps. But if you are at all tempted to just go for a blind-buy, here are three samples of its content selected, quite honestly, to completely persuade you.

First, the volume opens with some general reflections on lexicography by the late Frederick William Danker, longtime editor of the standard English lexicon of the Greek New Testament. ((Frederick William Danker, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.)) Danker describes the challenges he faced in moving “beyond the gloss” and “dealing with strongly entrenched lexical traditions” (2), as when a word’s translation becomes so tradition-bound that it is effectively “captive to special interests” (13). Yes, lexicography can have its politics, especially when the Bible is involved. This is because biblical lexicography is the ground floor of biblical interpretation, “for definition of a word in context is, for all practical purposes, exegesis” (19). LDS readers will appreciate this, since we do not really turn to our own “Bible Dictionary” find out what a word means, but what the Bible means.

Second, Jonathan Loopstra (Capital University) shows the importance to lexicography of the “Syriac Masora,” or booklets of vocalized words and readings from the Syriac Bible and other religious texts. Each “masoretic” manuscript is uniquely valuable, since all these manuscripts differ in contents. Only sixteen are known to exist. A fun fact here is that CPART recently imaged and placed online one of the most important of these (Mosul MS 16). A second is found in CPART’s Brown Collection of Christian Oriental Manuscripts (St. Mark’s Church, MS 42). We have plans to digitize two more of these manuscripts in the Vatican Apostolic Library as part of our ongoing Vatican Syriac manuscripts project.

Third, quotation marks have a “long and fascinating history,” as author Keith Houston recently detailed. But Houston only covers half the story of quotation, since quotation marks are a relatively late innovation in the written word. Many ancient languages use special grammatical constructions and/or words called “particles” to indicate quotes (often only their start point, unfortunately, which can leave readers guessing where they end). Craig Morrison (Pontifical Biblical Institute) studies here the Syriac particle lm in the author Jacob of Serugh (ca. 451-521). lm has long been known to “mark a quotation or oblique oration” (Payne Smith, Compendious Syriac Dictionary, 242). Morrison shows that in Jacob lm may certainly be used when citing the Bible, but also when paraphrasing it, explaining it, signaling a biblical parallel, or even just to emphasize a point or round out a line of meter. This inspires a whole new appreciation for the simple clarity of our humble quotation mark!

Kristian S. Heal and Alison G. Salveson, eds. Foundations for Syriac Lexicography IV: Colloquia of the International Syriac Language Project. Perspectives on Syriac Linguistics 6. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2014.