CHWP B.20 Dolezal, "The Canon of the English Dictionary"

1. Introduction

In previous papers I have suggested that we might profitably consider the history of English lexicography from the perspective of bibliography; that is, that each discrete book bearing a unique title page should be seen as a single edition of but a single text, The English Dictionary. My argument proceeded from an analysis of John Wilkins' and William Lloyd's Alphabetical Dictionary, published in 1668 as part of a larger work, An Essay towards a real character and philosophical language. The Essay proposes a scheme for a universal language; it also contains a short history of English, a grammar in the tradition of Speculative and Philosophical Grammar, and a conceptually ordered list of words which could be called a lexicon, or more mundanely, a thesaurus. I would point out that just saying this much already indicates the range of questions that need to be addressed to adequately understand and appreciate this work. For instance, can the book be defined within a print tradition? Do the stated intentions of the author restrict our understanding of the text? Does the author propose a language theory by way of his method? Is this more a text of the state of the English language of the mid-seventeenth century, or more a text of the state of scientific knowledge of the same period?

The questions that are pertinent to deciding the dictionariness of the text complement the issues that could be raised and addressed in a more comprehensive analysis of the Essay. In this case, we must ask questions concerning the structure and function of the artifact. How closely does this text follow the conventions of the text type called The Dictionary? Or perhaps, does the book present multiple text types, thereby producing an indefinable and unique artifact? Since the multitude of texts that are conventionally categorized under the heading DICTIONARIES have only just begun to be studied as texts,[1] these questions can not be answered with precision for any given text; however, most people know a dictionary when they see one. For the purpose of discussing a dictionary as database, we can agree that dictionary makers and dictionary users assume that the text has, as primary functions, the representation of knowledge (even if it is merely the knowledge of orthography or pronunciation) and the transmission of ideas (even if it is merely the idea of synonymy).

For the most part, the discipline of linguistics (and by extension, lexico-graphy) does not address the problems associated with determining or understanding the transmission of ideas within the field, much less does it consider its own bibliographical history. Of course, there are people working within the history of linguistics, but that field is notable for its lack of focus and for its emphasis on what is called historiography. There is important work being done in the history of linguistics, but my attention is drawn to the history of books and the representation of knowledge. The discipline of literary studies would seemingly offer methods to describe and explain this facet of representing and transmitting ideas; indeed, perspectives from textual and bibliographical analysis prove useful in framing questions about texts within the domain of language theory. When we consider how dependent representing knowledge as lexicographical formulae is upon so-called literary texts, especially as evidence for definitions, it is natural to conclude that lexicography as a discipline (sometimes referred to as metalexicography) must combine methods developed in both linguistic and literary theories.[2] To add the concept of database to the discussion only accentuates the need for a methodology for interpreting lexicographical texts within a larger notion of knowledge representation. A theory of bibliography, considered in a comprehensive manner, could provide all the seemingly divergent methods and perspectives with a mutually supporting place for discourse.[3]

Dictionary, Meaning, Database

In this paper, I will (1) briefly discuss the dictionariness of the Wilkins/Lloyd text; (2) consider the questions of how we represent meaning and knowledge; and (3) outline some of the textual problems associated with the transformation of dictionaries into databases. These separate points all are founded upon the notion mentioned above, that the analysis of English lexicography, especially as history, starts with bibliography. The definition of bibliography presents its own tradition of argument and counter-argument, but for this occasion I cite the following words by D. F. McKenzie (1986) as representative of the spirit of my inquiry: "[...] bibliography is the discipline that studies texts as recorded forms, and the processes of their transmission, including their production and reception [...] bibliographers should be concerned to show that forms effect meaning. Beyond that, this definition allows us to describe not only the technical but the social processes of their transmission" (p. 4). While McKenzie's argument is directed at the place of bibliography in textual criticism, I see a relevance to the study of lexicography. The phrase "texts as recorded forms" extends to all recorded forms, not merely the traditionally defined "book". The study of texts that record meanings in a variety of somewhat similar formats, texts we call dictionaries, calls us to account for the assertion that "forms effect meaning". I would add that forms also affect our perception of what a text means to us, in the sense that the cultural and historical context of the publication of a text becomes part of the form. One might suppose that form would establish function, or at least follow function: yet for those who would establish the canon of English dictionary, the mere existence of a title page announcing the intention of presenting a dictionary does not appear to be enough evidence of dictionariness for some people; we shall notice this later during the discussion of the Wilkins/Lloyd lexicographical text. The form of a text, and that includes any semiotic detail from italics to taxonomic structure, from microstructure to macrostructure, bears upon the second and third topics of this paper, representing meaning and knowledge and the dictionary as database.

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[1] Textual studies of dictionariness can be found in two recent collections: Dolezal (1989) and Wiegand (1990).

[2] For a discussion of the necessity for combining these separate disciplinary perspectives, see Van Peer (1988: 1-12).

[3] Before the advent of overweening specialization, this place was called philology.