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Dictionaries Of The 16th Century

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"Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies ofits past and the weapons of its future conquests."

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Lexicon Tetraglotton is a famous dictionary written by James Howell in 1660. It collects words in four different languages: English, French, Spanish and Italian and also proverbs. At this time, England was passing through a period of the English Revolution (1640-60) and the Enlightment period characterized by the intense ferment of science, politics and culture. All these aspects are reflected on the literature at the time and the growing patriotism and the interest in discovering where their language comes from and its development are described in this text. So, we shall look through all of them in this analysis.

Before we start analyzing the text, first of all I would like to comment on the front page because it gives you an idea that the author will develop later in the preface. On the one side there is an image, an engraving by William Faithorne indicated at the end of the page who was “one of the finest engravers of the 18th century”. In the image there are four women with letters above their heads, that represent the languages each woman corresponds with and the ones included in this dictionary: Spanish, French, Italian and English, respectively. Looking at this engraving, we can establish the relationship between these four languages at the time. At the top of the page and at the bottom the author writes the themes: one in Latin, “Associatio Linguarum” (the association of languages) and the other in French, “La Linge de Langues” (the league of languages). So the idea is that French, Italian and Spanish were considered the mother tongues and English is recent language in their group. The man that is hiding behind the tree as if he guards the four women also has letters above his head: Br, probably represents Britain and how she introduced the English language in the European society but there are also other theories for example it intended to be Dutch or Teutonic .The close relationship between French and English is due to the Norman conquest of British Isles in 1066 and it had a great influence on both languages, but mostly on the old English. The Spanish lady is the only one whose expression and body language represents awareness of the whole situation because of the Thirty Year’s War with France. Another important thing to add is that women represent such knowledge as language which reminds us of the muses in classical mythology. It stresses also the Latin presence in that period as one of the most important languages.

The other side of the front page has the name and a brief description of the dictionary. As we can see it is not an ordinary dictionary because it not only has words translated into four languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish), but also proverbs translated to other languages. In addition, the author included words but not just any words, but the ones related with science and the development of art which characterizes the period of the Enlightment. New words and expressions were appearing all the time, so they had to be included. All of this shows great effort, knowledge and great interest in other languages apart from your own. It was also important for the trade and commerce that was developing at that time, so communication was crucial. But the author could not resist including some of his patriotic notes. First he tries to defend English language because some people call in a “barren” (the word is quite new because it appeared in the dictionaries in 1651) meaning “desert, wasteland” by including the proverbs. Secondly, the author being Anglo-Welsh he adds some of old Cambrian (which is present day Welsh) sayings to give importance to his own language. So, in the end there are more than four languages that the author mentions: Latin, Greek, Old Cambrian, etc. In conclusion, the dictionary is more as an encyclopedia because of the scientific knowledge it brings which was quite a common characteristic of many dictionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Now we shall start analyzing the preface itself. The dedicatory: “To the tru Philologer” is a very direct address to the people interested in learning and studying languages so the text has a didactic voice. The author is going to talk about four languages, but he names English the same as Saxon so we can see the importance that had the Saxon language in the development of the Modern English but technically this concept is not true because English comes from Saxon which does not mean they are the same. He then mentions that he will talk about their “growth, changes” as if they were human beings, so there is a personification.

In the first paragraph the author makes a very interesting division of Nature and Human Understanding into “Things” and “Words”. The first one refers to the physical world or “Sense” and the second one to the abstract world or “Human Intellect”. It is a very philosophical vision of things but also it is a linguistic analysis of realities. Instead of describing the abstract world with some other concept he uses “word” which for the author is the more important of the two concepts as he calls them “the purest emanatations of the soul” giving even more importance to the humans. He adds that this division is “universal” which may be referring to the universality of some of the aspects of all the languages .Nowadays this is not a very common way of dividing our world because we see it as physical versus abstract, the last one being more things than just words, for example feelings, thoughts, senses, etc He uses that example to explain the superiority of a human being above all other living creatures justifying it with our capacity to “cut the air into Articulate sounds then we suck all the knowledge”. What he describes is what it means to know a language because it consists of the knowledge of the sound system (phonology) and the knowledge of the meaning of words. The relationship between these two concepts is an arbitrary one which is what we know today but in the 17th century we can already appreciate the beginning of linguistics. This emphasis on the language shows the anthropocentrism of the period. In the 21st century we still have this notion of superiority above others because of our physiological aspects of humans that permit us to be creative with language. As Noam Chomsky said in Language and Mind: “When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the human essence, the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man”.

In the third paragraph the tone changes


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