Magazine article Humanities

A Labor of Love

Magazine article Humanities

A Labor of Love

Article excerpt

THE ELEVENTH-CENTURY BAYEUX TAPESTRY DESCRIBES WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR'S INVASION OF ENGLAND IN 1066 TO CLAIM THE THRONE LEFT VACANT BY THE DEATH OF KING EDWARD. THE NORMAN CONQUEST TRIGGERED THE SHIFT FROM OLD ENGLISH, AN ANGLO-SAXON LANGUAGE, TO FRENCH-INFLUENCED MIDDLE ENGLISH.

Seventy-one years, five editors, and 55,000 entries later, the Middle English Dictionary is off the press.

Seventy-one years in the making, the Middle English Dictionary is complete. The final volume, number thirteen, appeared this summer, and its editor, Robert Lewis, describes himself as nothing less than "jubilant."

The dictionary covers the English language from the Norman Conquest to the advent of printing, or from roughly 1100 to 1500 A.D.

"We don't claim to have covered every bit of Middle English," says Lewis, who has been the editor for the last nineteen years. "We hope we are as complete as can be, giving all forms we know about." Lewis is modest: the dictionary contains more than 55,000 entries and 900,000 quotations, and provides examples of usage along with each word's definition. The completed version is 15,000 pages long, based on millions of citation slips yielded from 150 years of collection. An accompanying electronic version will be put online.

The Middle English Dictionary (MED) is a tool for two groups of scholars: those interested in the Middle Ages and those involved in producing modem dictionaries. "For the scholar of the Middle Ages, the MED is as comprehensive as can be, because we use data from all genres including astronomical, medical, documentary, and literary," says Lewis, who is a Middle English language scholar and professor at the University of Michigan. For makers of dictionaries, the MED provides extensive etymologies and text quotations that antedate those in other dictionaries. Many quotations are taken from sources that were previously inaccessible, such as the 1121 Peter Borough Chronicle.

Since 1980 the Endowment has supported the MED and in 1997 began funding the creation of an electronic version of the dictionary that includes the entire contents of the printed version, supplemented with source information and a text collection of Middle English prose and verse. The online dictionary can be searched for all the occurrences of a term, quotation, or author, which facilitates the process of locating, for example, medical terminology or quotations from Chaucer relating to astronomy. Quotations are hyperlinked, permitting users to jump to the online version of the original text with one click.

According to the project director of the electronic MED, John Price-Wilkin, its Middle English prose and verse collection is already the largest available.

"With such a large body of source material available online," says Price-Wilkin, "scholars can get very authoritative sources and links to texts for fuller reading. It's an immense body of material. It is also possible to do searches of words by dialect and geographic area."

Lewis agrees that the online version is a boon to scholars and envisions it being used more than the print version. "You can ask it questions you can't ask the print version."

The MED covers the most formative period in the history of the English language. It was during this period that the language changed from a Germanic tongue to one that borrowed significantly from French and Latin; by the end of the era it resembled modern English. "If you look at Old English, the language looked the same in the early period and the late period," says Lewis. "But with Middle English, it looked like Old English in the early period and like Modern English in the late period."

"Languages change all the time," he explains. "The invention of printing in the early 1470s standardized language, leading to Modern English with standardized spellings. As English developed, meanings of words proliferated and divided, with more meanings and more subtleties. …

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