Two very different projects in the University have at their heart the ancient craft of lexicography: the art of compiling and editing dictionaries. But one project is reviving glossaries created over a thousand years ago and the other is creating a new lexicon of an ancient language.

We are doing something that is radically new, not based on existing lexicons but going back to the original sources

Professor Diggle

If you think of lexicography as a way of making sense of the world through words, the ancient scholarly glossaries can provide unique insight into the life and times of the people who wrote them. In the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNC), a set of early medieval Irish glossaries written as long ago as the 8th century is being restored under the leadership of Dr Paul Russell. Meanwhile, modern-day lexicography is happening in the Faculty of Classics, where a team headed by Professor James Diggle is writing a new dictionary, or lexicon, of Ancient Greek to English. Both research projects are building fully searchable, web-based resources that will provide important academic tools for future research worldwide.

The Early Irish Glossaries Project is centred on three inter-related medieval glossaries known as Sanas Cormaic (‘Cormac’s Glossary’), O’Mulconry’s Glossary and Dúil Dromma Cetta (‘the Collection of Druim Cett’). These previously neglected works are semi-encyclopaedic listings of headwords and their definitions, ranging from single-word translations to explanations that include anecdotes and poems.

By carefully comparing and contrasting the different entries in each glossary, a picture is emerging of the literary and cultural environment of the scholars who wrote them. ‘The glossaries have different preoccupations; for example, O’Mulconry’s Glossary contains a great deal of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, while Sanas Cormaic seems very interested in the activities of poets and lawyers,’ says Dr Russell.

Crucially, the nature of the glossaries lends itself to the creation of a fully searchable online database: ‘The only way of making sense of these entries is not to treat them piecemeal,’ explains Dr Russell, ‘but to bring together from the different glossaries similar or related entries. Only then can you begin to say something sensible about them.’ The project is one year into its three-year funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and, when complete, about 2600 entries will have been added to the database.

For the Ancient Greek Lexicon project, the drive to create a new dictionary stemmed from the inadequacies of earlier works, which are outdated in ways that cannot be solved by a superficial revision. Having secured a further three years’ funding from the AHRC, a team of compilers in the Faculty of Classics are heading towards the completion of a project that has been nine years in the making, and uses an electronic database developed in collaboration with Perseus, an American digital library with a huge databank of classical texts. Modern technology allows rapid searches through hundreds of texts, so the writers can study the Greek words in their original context. As Professor Diggle explains: ‘We are doing something that is radically new, not based on existing lexicons but going back to the original sources.’

The resulting entries are ground-breaking for their focus on providing contextual information, which is a vital part of a given word’s meaning. The parallels between this modern-day lexicography and that of the early Irish scholars at work a millennium earlier are remarkable.

For more information on the Early Irish Glossaries project, please visit www.asnc.cam.ac.uk/irishglossaries and on the Greek Lexicon Project, please visit www.classics.cam.ac.uk/ glp/index.html


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