Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Dictionary Preface as a Vehicle of Opinion: The Debate over Borrowed Words

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Dictionary Preface as a Vehicle of Opinion: The Debate over Borrowed Words

Article excerpt

The first monolingual English dictionaries were published during a period of acute lexical activity beginning in the early sixteenth century that was marked by 'the fastest vocabulary growth in the history of English in proportion to the vocabulary size of the time'.1 The majority of new words introduced during this period resulted from lexical borrowing, particularly from Latin, but also from languages such as Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish.2 Major developments in science and in the arts together with increased commercial activities, exploration, and translation of foreign authors were among the factors motivating the introduction of borrowed words into English. But borrowed words also served an aesthetic purpose, satisfying the 'desire to attain expression in an elegant and ornamented style; in simpler terms, to "dress up" the English language'.3

At the time, the use of borrowed words 'was not yet widespread' in English, and since these terms were not 'readily comprehensible to "unedu-cated" readers',4 they were among the hard words that were given special attention in the first monolingual English dictionaries. These works, which emerged at the beginning of the seventeenth century are, in fact, known as hard-word dictionaries. As such, they offered limited coverage of the lexicon, restricted as they were to language used mainly by scholars, including words that were likely to be unfamiliar to unscholarly readers.

But the use of hard words in general, and borrowed words in particular,5 was not approved unanimously, and became 'a key theme of seventeenth-century debate on the language'.6 As recalled by Tom McArthur, 'this has been the controversy of innovator and importer against purist and defender - a quarrel out of which emerged, among other things, the unilingual dictionary'.7 Along with writers and scholars, dictionary compilers took part in this linguistic debate, and their participation bore two main forms. Their first initiative, the very act of compiling a dictionary, has been examined by Tom McArthur:

[T]he compilers of the hard-word dictionaries were not recorders of usage, as lexicographers are nowadays largely assumed to be. Instead, they were themselves partisan - active participators in the process of transferring the word-store of Latin wholesale into their own language. The later charges of plagiarism and corruption levelled at them would not have made a lot of sense to them, nor the parallel charges that some of their coinages or transfers were pretentious and unnecessary. They knew precisely what they were doing, and were commercial successes8 in doing it.9

Phil Benson notes that dictionary compilers of the seventeenth century acted as carriers of lexical innovations, spreading neologisms via their works, and 'as these neologisms passed from dictionary to dictionary they became more firmly embedded in the conventional metalinguistic account of the language'.10 Benson further adds that by compiling a dictionary, early lexicographers 'sought to impose their own influence on the shape of the developing language, whether by pushing forward or holding back the pace of neologisation'.11

The compilers of seventeenth-century dictionaries also shared in the linguistic debate of the time by using the prefaces of their dictionaries as vehicles for their opinions. While some researchers have studied early prefaces,12 their goal has not been to concentrate on the opinions expressed by these early lexicographers on the particular subject of borrowed words. This topic, to our knowledge not yet addressed in depth, will be the focus here.

Over the course of our study, we analysed the prefatory material of the six major monolingual English dictionaries published during the seventeenth century: Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall,13 John Bullokar's An English Expositor,14 Henry Cockeram's The English Dictionarie,15 Thomas Blount's Glossographia,16 Edward Phillips's The New World of English Words,17 and Elisha Coles's An English Dictionary. …

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