Old English dictionaries: a guide for the mildly perplexed

I started writing this with the idea that it might be useful to share with the members of my Old English reading group. I had found that some people were keen to read Old English texts but – even if they already had a fair amount of experience doing so – were unfamiliar with the ins and outs of using dictionaries of Old English. This tallied with my own experience of learning Old English in a classroom; we were taught a lot about Old English, but relatively little about the resources that we were using to study it. This meant that, when we moved from translating passages in textbooks to reading editions, a lot of time and energy was being spent on wrestling information out of the dictionary.

This post represents my personal experiences and preferences. It’s also a work in progress; I’ve never tried to explain before the exact process I go through when looking up an Old English word. If you find something that is incorrect or unclear, please get in touch with me and let me know how I could make this more useful!

Before I start

What this is not: a crash course in Old English, a beginner’s guide to grammatical terminology.

What this is: some suggestions (based on personal experience) that might make your life a bit easier the next time you come across an unfamiliar Old English word and want to look up what it means.

The problem

As a (relative) beginner to reading Old English, a lot of the texts you come across will be provided with convenient glossaries. Because these glossaries are designed to be used with the particular text you’re reading, they don’t usually cause much confusion; you can generally trust them to contain all the words you need to know, in the spellings and senses found in the text. But, at some point, you’ll come across a text with no glossary, forcing you to consult a dictionary instead. There are several challenges here:

  • Which is the best dictionary to use, and where do you find it?
  • How do you find the word you’re looking for in the dictionary? Unlike a glossary, the dictionary might not list a word in the particular spelling used in your text.
  • How do you interpret the entry? Some parts of some Old English dictionaries can be downright cryptic and occasionally misleading.

Choosing a dictionary

Most people I know tend to fall back on the digital Bosworth-Toller dictionary (named after its editors, Joseph Bosworth and Thomas Northcote Toller), which is available here: http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/ It’s free, available online, and is the fullest complete dictionary of Old English available. You could of course use a paper copy, and I’ll include a few notes about things to bear in mind if you do this, but for most purposes I find the online version far easier to use.

Fewer people seem to be in the habit of using the Dictionary of Old English, or DOE. This is understandable; it requires logging in, and (crucially) it’s a work in progress that at the moment only covers the letters A to I. Despite these downsides, it is a delight to use, and far more informative and accurate than Bosworth-Toller. For everything beyond very quick lookups, I urge you to make the DOE your first port of call for looking up Old English words. If you are a member of a university, you may well have institutional access: check your library catalogue. If not, you are entitled to a limited number of free logins per year. See the information here: https://www.doe.utoronto.ca/store/doc.php

Other dictionaries are available, but Bosworth-Toller and the DOE between them will do most of what you need, and they’re the two it’s most useful to learn how to navigate. One further general-purpose Old English dictionary it may be handy to know about is the Clark Hall dictionary (look for the fourth edition, revised by Meritt. It’s a nice portable dictionary (unlike the doorstop that is Bosworth-Toller) that works well if you like having a paper copy on hand. It’s not as detailed as either Bosworth-Toller or the DOE, but I generally find it fairly intuitive to use. Follow the same basic principles for looking up words that I discuss for Bosworth-Toller, and Clark Hall shouldn’t give you too much trouble.

Finding your word

First, what letter does the word start with? (Ignore for the moment the ge- prefix, if there is one; treat, for instance, gefrignan as though it began with F. More on this later.) If it is A, Æ, B, C, D, E, F, G, H or I, you’re in luck; you can use the DOE! (There are a few other odd cases where a DOE lookup might still be useful, if your word is an odd spelling that could be re-spelt to begin with a letter A to I. I’ll talk about odd spellings in more detail when I come to Bosworth-Toller.) For anything after I in the alphabet (including Ð and Þ), you will need to use Bosworth-Toller.

Finding a word in the DOE

So, your word begins with a letter A-I. First, go to the DOE website and log in. You should see something like this:

From the drop-down menu (where it says ‘headword’ on the screenshot), select ‘attested spelling’. This means that, rather than searching the normalised dictionary headwords (verbs in the infinitive, nouns in the nominative singular, spellings normalised), you will be searching a list of word forms as they actually appear in real Old English texts. All you need to do is type the word into the search bar as it appears in your text, and you will automatically be directed to the right dictionary entry. Of course, if the form that you are searching for is ambiguous – it could belong to more than one distinct entry in the dictionary – the search will bring up all the possible relevant entries, and you’ll need to look at all of them.

And, for the DOE, that’s honestly all you need to do to find a word. There are plenty of other ways you can search this dictionary, but for our purposes, this easiest approach.

Finding a word in Bosworth-Toller

If the word you’re looking for isn’t in the DOE then you’ll need to use Bosworth-Toller. Unlike the DOE, Bosworth-Toller only lists words in their normalised headword form, so to look up a word, you’ll need to be able to deduce (or guess) this form. Sadly, there is no magic shortcut here; the more you learn the declension and conjugation patterns of Old English, the easier it will be. Nevertheless, a few tips:

  • Start with the obvious: from its form and its function in the sentence, you will generally be able to tell whether your word is a verb/noun/etc. Other things may also jump out; for example, if you have something that from context you think should be a past tense verb, but it doesn’t have the characteristic t/d/ð/þ in its ending, it’s probably a strong verb, so in that case you’ll want to be aware of the fact that strong verbs also change their vowels.
  • If you’re stuck, the web version of Bosworth-Toller has an auto-complete function in its search. You might get somewhere by typing the beginning of the word into the search box and looking through its suggestions. (This can be especially useful for cases like not being sure if the infinitive of a verb is in -an or -ian.) See the screenshot below for an example.
  • If you’re really stuck, you can always try the advanced search feature. Type your word in the form it appears in the text into the ‘find entry that contains…’ search box. Unlike the DOE, Bosworth-Toller doesn’t list all the forms in which a word appears in Old English texts, but it does contain a certain number of example quotations. There’s always a chance that your word form – perhaps even the exact sentence you’re reading – has been quoted in an entry. If that’s the case, this search will find it. Of course, the quotation may have been included to illustrate a different word from the one you’re interested in, but even in these cases, Bosworth-Toller occasionally gives a translation of the whole quotation, so it’s still worth a try.

The biggest challenge when looking up words in Bosworth-Toller is dealing with what I’m going to call odd spellings: words that don’t follow the nice, neat, regularised spelling rules you see in textbooks and so on. Sometimes, Bosworth-Toller will have a separate entry for these odd spellings, or an entry that redirects you to the more standard spelling. However, you can’t always rely on this. If you can’t immediately find the word you’re looking for in Bosworth-Toller, it may well be the time to apply a bit of odd spelling guesswork. You’ll get better with practice, but here are a few rules of thumb:

  • If there is a k anywhere in your word, change it to c when searching.
  • Keep an eye out for the suffix -ness. It crops up fairly often and in Bosworth-Toller is variously spelled -ness, -nes, -nis, -niss, -nys and -nyss. The autocomplete function of the search tool is your friend here, but in some cases it may be easier to try manually typing in the different spellings.
  • In general, vowels are going to be the source of most spelling variation you come across. As the example of -ness shows, unstressed vowels are particularly likely to appear in different spellings, but stressed vowels can vary as well. Watch out especially for ie/i/y and (before n or m) for a/o.
  • Remember that the perfectly regular textbook spellings of Old English are an editorial invention. Real manuscripts contain more variation than this, and reflect different dialects of Old English spoken at different times and in different places. (For a little bit more detail on this, and some notes on other common variant spellings, Appendix 1 of this webpage is a good starting point: https://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/stella/apps/web/eoe/about/)
  • Don’t expect Bosworth-Toller to be consistent in how it records these odd spellings; it’s a bit of a mess!

Interpreting a dictionary entry

Once you’ve located the appropriate entry in a dictionary, you still need to know how to interpret it to get the information you need. Some of this is a matter of general dictionary skills and common sense; in other cases, you may find it useful to know something about the particular quirks of the dictionary you’re using.

General points

  • Check the part of speech (noun, verb, adjective etc.); if it’s not what you were expecting from the context of your sentence, something might have gone wrong in the looking up stage. (Be aware, though, that it’s not terribly uncommon to find adjectives being used as nouns – e.g. an adjective meaning ‘brave’ used on its own to mean ‘brave person’. Don’t be put off by this.)
  • Similarly, check to see whether the headword you’re looking at could realistically appear in the form you’ve found in your reading. If you’ve followed my guidelines for DOE lookups using the attested spellings field, this should be the case as a matter of course. I have discussed below how you can work out likely inflections for a Bosworth-Toller headword. Whether you’re using the DOE or Bosworth-Toller, you will also want to check that the inflection you think you’re dealing with matches what you think would fit in the sentence you’re reading.
  • Don’t just read the first definition given; one dictionary entry may contain multiple senses for a word, some closely related and others more loosely. Look at them all to decide which makes most sense for the text you’re reading.
  • Make use of the example quotations. They show how the word is used in real Old English texts – perhaps even the text you’re reading. Quotations can help clarify the definition, give an idea of the kinds of texts in which a word tends to appear (e.g. poetry, laws, medical texts), and show which words or syntactic constructions are likely to appear around it. All of this information can give you an idea of whether you’re on the right track with your interpretation.
  • Vowel length: both the DOE and Bosworth-Toller mark vowel length. The DOE uses macrons on long vowels, while Bosworth-Toller uses acute accents. This is just a matter of different conventions; there is no other difference, and vowel length may or may not be marked in the text you are reading.

Interpreting the DOE

A DOE entry contains a lot of information, much of it rather specialised. For an overview of all the different parts of an entry, select the ‘Docs’ tab and choose ‘entry format’. Things that are likely to be useful to you:

  • At the beginning of the entry, just under the headword, you will be told the part of speech, the class of a noun or verb, and the gender of a noun. This information is abbreviated, so may be a little cryptic at first glance, but it’s useful to know.
  • The section of ‘attested spellings’ is arranged in a parsed order. This means that you should be able to get information from it about inflection patterns; unfortunately, it is rather tricky to read. The basic principle is that, for each ‘cell’ in a table of inflections, all the attested forms are listed, beginning with the most ‘regular’ and moving to the oddest. Very similar spellings are separated with commas, while more significant spelling differences (involving a major vowel change) are separated with |. Different ‘cells’ of the ‘table’ are separated with ||. However, if no evidence survives for a certain cell of the table (say, for example, we have no texts in which a certain noun is used in the genitive singular), the list of attested spellings will skip right over this and go to the next ‘cell’. As none of the ‘cells’ are labelled, working out which spellings correspond to which part of the paradigm can hence be rather confusing. Unless you’re especially confident, it may be easier to ignore this information and just work out the prototypical inflection patterns of a word by referring to the information about its class and applying the patterns found in a standard Old English grammar.
  • The DOE doesn’t supply translations for its example quotations. However, sometimes a quotation will be followed by a short passage/phrase in Latin; this generally represents the Latin text of which the Old English is a translation. That translation may not be exact, but if you know Latin, it can be a useful way of getting a better understanding of what the Old English means.

Interpreting Bosworth-Toller

Once again, using Bosworth-Toller requires a little more ingenuity. It doesn’t provide as much information as the DOE, so in that sense it’s sometimes easier to understand an entry at a glance, but it’s more likely to be outright cryptic or misleading.

  • Possibly the most important thing to remember here is that the online Bosworth-Toller is a digitised version of a paper dictionary, and – although the web layout aims to represent the structure of entries as they were originally written – if an entry looks particularly odd, it’s possible that you’re dealing with a minor error in the digitisation. If something looks very strange, select ‘show/hide this scanned page’ to see the original print layout.
  • It is also very important to remember that the online Bosworth-Toller brings together information from two different publications: the original main dictionary, and a later supplement to the dictionary, which added some entries and revised others. At the bottom of an entry in the online version, it should tell you whether you are looking at an entry from the main dictionary or the supplement, and – if a word is entered in both the main dictionary and the supplement – it will give you a link to the corresponding entry in the other. It’s worthwhile checking both; the supplement entries often correct mistakes in the main dictionary, but sometimes these corrections only make sense if you read them alongside the entry that’s being corrected.
  • Bosworth-Toller gives abbreviated information about the inflection patterns of a word just after the headword; sometimes principal parts etc. will be written out in full, but sometimes just an ending is given and you will have to extrapolate. For example, “BÁN baan, es; bán; n.” means that the noun bān, ‘bone’, can also be spelt baan in the nominative singular, has the genitive singular form bānes and the nominative plural form bān, and is neuter.
  • Beware Latin definitions! When Bosworth-Toller gives a Latin definition for an Old English word, this sometimes means that the latter was used as a translation of the former in a translation of a Latin text, a glossary, etc. Sometimes, however, the Latin is just a traditional definition of the Old English word, first added by 17th/18th-century scholars. This is unlikely to cause significant problems if all you’re trying to do is understand an Old English text, but it’s worth bearing in mind.
  • Treat with caution any entry marked ‘Lye’ or ‘Som.’ that doesn’t include a quotation or list any other sources; this is a sign that Bosworth didn’t check this entry against an actual edition of an Old English text, so it’s more likely to be inaccurate. Usually, these entries will have an updated version in the supplement.

A final note

I hope these guidelines make it a little easier to find your way around using Old English dictionaries when reading or translating. Some of them are common-sense; those that aren’t often become second nature with a bit of practice. Don’t be put off too much by my various caveats here; some of the tricky situations I’ve described will only come up very rarely in the general course of things. That said, if you can’t find a word, don’t despair; it’s much more likely that it’s recorded in the dictionaries, but in a way you didn’t expect, than that it’s a complete mystery.

If you’re interested in investigating other things about the vocabulary of Old English, rather than just looking up words for a translation, there are other features of Old English dictionaries it’s worth becoming familiar with, and other resources you might find useful (the Dictionary of Old English Corpus, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Thesaurus of Old English, etc.) For basic purposes, though, this overview should have covered the most important things to bear in mind.

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Many, many things

Well, it’s been a busy year for me so far, to say the least. Of the past six and a half months, I’ve spent slightly more than four away from Glasgow for one reason or another: a surprisingly jet-setting lifestyle, and my excuse for the lack of blogging activity. There has, however, been a variety of things worth blogging about, and perhaps even worth blogging about belatedly. 

Rashly defying the weather forecasts, in January I headed off to Canada to spend three months at the University of Toronto. My motivation for braving minus twenty temperatures was (predictably) a dictionary, specifically the imaginatively named Dictionary of Old English, affectionately known as the DOE. Anyone who has used the DOE will appreciate how exciting this is; it’s an amazing resource, and infinitely more pleasant to navigate than the current standard dictionary of Old English, which was first published at the end of the nineteenth century. For non-Anglo-Saxonists, I can explain it best by saying that the last time the DOE released a new batch of entries, I was so excited that I dropped what I was doing to email people about it. (The timing of that release, just before I was about to present a conference paper full of statistics about DOE entries, was a little hair-raising for me when it happened, but I digress…) 

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The inner sanctum of the DOE: look at all the books! Due to a very odd arrangement of lifts in the library building that houses the DOE offices, getting here really does feel a bit like reaching the end of an epic quest.

As the DOE is one of the dictionaries that I am analysing for my thesis, I found a lot to keep me busy. As well as answering my incessant questions, the DOE team even let me try my hand at drafting some entries. This was a very different process from my experiences at HarperCollins (which I have talked about before), because what the DOE is trying to achieve is very different. Perhaps most significantly, the amount of Old English surviving today is relatively small and isn’t likely to get much bigger any time soon. So, while a dictionary of present-day English is constantly trying to catch up with English speakers by finding and documenting new words and senses, it’s possible to collect copies of every Old English text we know about, and then to sit down and read (almost) every word in those texts before writing a definition. It’s an oddly powerful feeling to look at a pile of paper slips on your desk and know that they represent every surviving example of a particular word in Old English. (Or maybe that’s just me.) 

Many thanks are due to everyone at the DOE for their incredible generosity during my time in Toronto. If you want to know more about what I did at the DOE, I have in fact blogged elsewhere about just that. For now, though, I have another three months’ worth of happenings to cram into a single post. 

My next big academic event came almost immediately after my return from Canada; I actually landed in London Gatwick and hopped straight on a train to Canterbury. I can’t especially recommend the experience of dragging a giant suitcase through the streets of Canterbury while suffering from acute jetlag, but in this case it was worth it to go to a full day of talks marking the 350th anniversary of William Somner, my favourite seventeenth-century Anglo-Saxonist/lexicographer/antiquary/general nerd. It was a privilege to be invited to speak at an event featuring so many expert scholars, and a treat to be able to talk to – and learn from – other fans of Somner’s work. Most of the papers had a historical, rather than linguistic, focus, so I got to learn a lot about the practical, social and political context of Somner’s scholarship, topics which I haven’t had the opportunity or knowledge to look at in detail in my own research. (For anyone who wants to know more, there is a write-up of the day here in the newsletter of the Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library.) 

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Canterbury Cathedral Archives: an exhibition of books and papers by and/or relating to William Somner.

After all that, I had one more event before I returned to Glasgow: a training workshop on TEI XML, which is a system for marking up texts to make digital editions (and other such clever things) – essentially, “How do I make a computer understand what all the different parts of this document do?” This was very thought-provoking stuff that I hope to be able to use in the future, but I must confess that at this point the exhaustion was setting in, and I was still carrying a suitcase slightly larger than me, full of clothes suitable for a Toronto winter. (More accurately, at this point I was dragging it, the suitcase handle having fallen off somewhere en route…) I’m glad to say that after that I got a bit of a break from travelling, and a chance to remember what my thesis looks like. However, I hadn’t learnt my lesson about the stress of too much travelling, because I was soon to set off again… 

After a one-off conference trip in April, round two of my travels began in earnest in June with a trip to Leeuwarden in the Netherlands.. This was for the International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology, which I went to last year when it was in Italy. As it was last year, it was a very pleasant and very interesting conference, and this time it had an extra bonus for me as a student of Germanic languages, as we were hosted by the Fryske Akademy, which promotes research into Frisian language and culture. Frisian is closely related to English, and indeed one of the dictionaries of Old English I am looking at in my PhD thesis has a long section in the introduction on the relevance of Frisian to Anglo-Saxonists. (Joseph Bosworth’s Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language, published in 1838, to be precise.) However, there were also papers on lots of other dictionary-related topics, many by faces familiar to me from last year’s conference. One of the pleasures of finding an academic niche is, I think, the chance to get to know people and to catch up when you inevitably run into each other at the same conferences. 

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Halbertsma’s Frisian dictionary: one of the books in a mini-exhibition put on for us at the Fryske Akademy.

My second conference of the summer doesn’t get a write-up here; I successfully applied to the College of Arts at Glasgow for funding to attend, and one of the conditions of that funding is that I had to post a piece about the conference on their blog. If I remember, I will link to it when it goes up. Anyway, that conference led straight into the next; once again, I found myself heading straight on from the airport, seemingly without time to breathe. This time, I was heading for the Leeds IMC (another conference that I went to last year). It was nice to take a break from the onslaught of lexicography (enjoyable, but one can have too much even of a good thing) and throw myself back into a crowd of mediaevalists. My overall impression, as it was last year, was of a cross between a conference, a school reunion, and a huge, week-long party. There were lots of fabulous papers – and it was a wrench to have to decide between so many parallel sessions after coming from two relatively small conferences where the choices were much more manageable in number – but also mediaeval music, bookbinding (I am now the proud owner of the most hideously lumpy book ever created), birds of prey, and many other things of that ilk.

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My confused attempts at understanding the basic principles of bookbinding.

This year at Leeds I was co-organising a session. Essentially this means picking a topic that (probably, but not necessarily) fits within the conference’s overarching theme, soliciting proposals for papers, selecting speakers, and taking responsibility for making sure their delivery of those papers goes smoothly on the day. All this was new to me, but Thijs Porck, my co-organiser and the real brains of the operation, was very gracious about guiding me through the procedure, and I’m pleased to say that everything went more or less according to plan. We had two linked sessions of six papers total, on the topic of ‘Rematerialising Old English post 1500’, for which we were lucky enough to have some excellent speakers, who talked about editing the works of Ælfric in the Early Modern period, translating Old English riddles, the bizarre popularity of Beowulf in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century, the possible influence of Old English poetry on The Wind in the Willows, and how (not) to write a novel in Old English for readers who don’t speak Old English. (The take-away from the last: if you’re going to make up rules to make your writing sound more archaic, people will notice if those rules are inconsistent, and they will be annoyed…) My own paper was on dictionaries and translating into (rather than out of) Old English. All in all, a very interesting set of reflections on why and how people study Old English. 

So, Leeds was a success, enough so that I’m already making plans to return next year. But now it’s time to return to my poor, neglected thesis. This year has been a rollercoaster of new experiences; I’ve been very lucky to have the chance to do them all, and they have all been both enjoyable and educational. However, it’s also been a bit of a lesson in knowing my limits. I would really struggle to turn down any one of these chances if they were offered to me again, but, nevertheless, by the end of it all I was fit for very little beyond collapsing into bed and sleeping it off for a week. Clearly, finding a balance of activities is something I need to work on as I go into the third year of my PhD, but even as I write this, I have plots brewing for further conferences and other projects. They do tend to breed… On the one hand, this is obviously a demonstration that conferences do what they’re supposed to in terms of encouraging collaboration and innovation; on the other hand, it’s a bit exhausting! Still, there are much worse problems to have than ‘too many interesting things to do’ – which might count as a suitably optimistic note on which to end this extremely long blog post. 

In which I am a real lexicographer

This post comes to you slightly delayed, since I’ve spent the past week being distracted by the vitally important tasks of eating Christmas cake and going to the British Library for a second go at their Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. However, I am now back behind the keyboard and ready to give an account of my recent activities.

A while ago, I was sent an email by the University of Glasgow’s “Internship Hub”. As the name probably suggests, the Internship Hub is an arm of the university’s careers service that focuses on finding internship placements for students. They email out information about a lot of opportunities in all kinds of different fields, but I was still rather surprised to see an advert for an editorial internship in the dictionaries department of HarperCollins.

HarperCollins is a slightly mind-bogglingly huge publishing company that, among other things, is very well-known for its dictionaries. (Indeed, a Collins dictionary was one of the “family” dictionaries when I was growing up. Whenever I wanted to look up a word, I used to enjoy pitting it against the slightly antiquated Concise Oxford Dictionary that was our other go-to, to see which had the better definition. In retrospect, this was probably a sign of things to come.) It has offices all over the place, but – by a happy coincidence – its dictionary publishing activities operate out of Bishopbriggs, less than an hour’s bike ride from my flat in the West End of Glasgow. They happened to be looking for an intern to help revise their thesaurus content. Predictably, I leapt at the opportunity, and, after completing an aptitude test and attending an interview, was slightly startled and tremendously excited to find that I’d got the job.

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Pictured: My excitement at having my own desk at HarperCollins is in conflict with my innate fear of cameras.

In some ways, HarperCollins was a rather familiar environment for me; I do, after all, spend a lot of my time thinking about dictionaries. Still, when I have my PhD hat on, the dictionaries that I’m thinking about are mostly old (sometimes several hundred years old) and are designed to be read almost exclusively by mediaevalists. So it was an interesting change of scene, not only to be allowed to do lexicography rather than just talking about it, but also to work on something that’s closer to the average person’s experience of dictionaries (or, in this case, thesauruses).

The main task I was given to work on during my internship certainly wasn’t something I usually have to think about; I was asked to revise a batch of thesaurus entries for their presentation of gender, doing things like making sure spokeswomen and businesspeople were recorded as well as their male equivalents. To some of my readers this may sound like nitpicking, but users are conscious of these kinds of issue and want their reference works to address them appropriately. Furthermore, while some of the changes are simply mechanical (for instance, changing ‘give someone his marching orders’ to ‘give someone their marching orders’), others required a good deal of thought and research and (I hope) make the thesaurus more informative. For example, I can think that being a henchman should be an equal-opportunities job, but can I find evidence that people actually write about ‘henchwomen’ and ‘henchpersons’? In this case, yes, so it’s useful for thesaurus users to know this.

These kinds of issues in language use are very much in the public consciousness these days, so it was fascinating to be able to get involved myself (and to make my own small contribution in favour of singular ‘they’). And, of course, it was amazing to know that all the small improvements I made, even if it was just fixing a typo in an entry, would go into a real, published product, making it just that little bit clearer and more accurate.

I learned a lot of things as an intern. Some of them were practical: how to handle the Dictionary Production System software package, for example. (Yes, that’s really what it’s called. Yes, it is a very prosaic name for a tool used by a group of people who make their living dealing with words.) Some of them were more about improving my research skills: I spent many hours sifting through corpus data trying to work out what was relevant. Some had very little to do with the tasks I’d been given, but were a brilliant insight into the work of the office more generally: I got to hear about the difficulties involved in designing the layout of a visual dictionary, and got taken down to a trip to the company archives to see a lot of old books, a letter from Agatha Christie and (my personal favourite) some original Paddington Bear illustrations. (Sorry, no photographs allowed, or I would have shared them with you!) All of it was great fun and I’m very grateful to everyone in the office who was so welcoming to me, as well as to the Internship Hub at Glasgow for making it possible. I was sad to leave at the end of my placement, but – as will become clear in my next post – 2019 is bringing a whole host of other things to fill up my diary. Stay tuned!

Even more so than usual, this feels like the kind of post in which I should remind people that this is a personal blog, and that my ramblings are my own and don’t represent the official opinion of HarperCollins or anyone else. However, some of my edits will, I hope, soon be making their way to a thesaurus near you, either online (www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-thesaurus) or, at some point, in paperback. I wouldn’t especially recommend reading the whole thing in search of my changes, but if you do please don’t send me angry letters about how much you hated them!

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Obligatory picture of the Codex Amiatinus, because it’s brilliant

I have been travelling once again, this time to the south of England where I had a delightful time at the wedding of an old friend and didn’t think about Old English, dictionaries, or anything thesis-related all weekend. However, this state of affairs could not last, and on Monday I took the opportunity of being in the approximate vicinity of London to visit the new Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.

If you have any interest at all in such things you have almost certainly heard all about it already, but for anyone who hasn’t, I will get the essential points out of the way: this is a stunning exhibition and I urge you to do yourself a favour and see it as soon as possible. Maybe several times. (I am already hatching plans to drag family members along for a second visit.)

That said, what exactly was it like? As is usual with these things, photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibition, so I can’t offer much of a visual illustration, although it’s possible to find images of most (if not all) of the manuscripts online. Manuscript digitisation is, of course, a wonderful thing, and one I rely on a lot for my own research,[1] but this exhibition has very little to do with studying the manuscripts. You go to meet them, in the same way that (to resort to a simile that a lot of people have doubtless already used) you go to meet a celebrity.

And goodness, they are celebrities. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every Anglo-Saxon manuscript I remember being mentioned in my undergraduate classes is there. The exhibition was busy, even on a Monday morning, and, while everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves, the Anglo-Saxonists were easy to spot by the way they kept on rushing up to cases – elbowing innocent bystanders in their path – while exclaiming something along the lines of, “Look, it’s the St Augustine Gospels, actually there!” (Full disclosure: maybe not all the Anglo-Saxonists were doing this, but I certainly was. I wasn’t entirely alone, though.)

Everyone has been talking about the Codex Amiatinus, the gigantic Bible brought all the way from Florence especially for the exhibition, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. (I remember, on a visit to Florence several years ago, mooning around the library where it is usually kept. Even though it wasn’t on display, I just wanted to say I’d been there. The Laurentian library is worth a visit anyway, especially if you’re more interested in Michelangelo’s architecture than I was, but actually getting to see the Codex Amiatinus was much more exciting.) Actually being able to see its size for myself impressed on me what a statement it was not only to have it made, but to send it all the way from Northumbria to Rome.

However, at least as exciting to me was the chance to see, side by side in one case, the four manuscripts that between them contain the vast majority of surviving Old English poetry. The Vercelli book, another visitor from Italy, was open to The Dream of the Rood – an appropriate choice given that the same room also contained a replica of the Ruthwell cross, on which are engraved some verses that also appear in this poem, but also an excellent opportunity to declaim to one’s (thankfully very tolerant) fellow exhibition-goers some of the most sonorous lines in the Old English canon.[2] (I may not be at all religious, but the poem’s crescendo to the thunderous Crist wæs on rode gives me chills even so.) There were a few headphone stations scattered through the exhibit where you could hear someone reading (in the original and in translation) the texts on display, but to get the most out of the exhibition I would definitely recommend bringing along an edition of some well-known Old English texts and/or a friend who reads Old English and has a good eye for palaeography, because there’s something special about reading these manuscripts for yourself.

To fulfil my talking-about-dictionaries-etc. quota, I should mention that they also the Corpus Glossary, which inspired an excited monologue to my friend about AB-alphabetisation. I would have liked more acknowledgement of the fact that the majority of its glosses are Latin-Latin, rather than Latin-Old English – and maybe even a mention of how a later hand has gone through and underlined Old English glosses – but one can’t have everything, I suppose.

It felt as though everything in the exhibition was a “big name” to someone, but even the manuscripts I didn’t know so much about myself were fascinating to see in the flesh. The Paris Psalter had me going, “Huh, I had no idea it was that shape” (there are too many manuscripts that go by that name; this was Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 8824, which contains Latin psalms with a facing Old English translation, and is in a strikingly tall and narrow format), seeing the illustrations in medical manuscripts was a new one on me, and so on. There was also a pleasing range in terms of the genre of texts and the status of manuscripts (from deluxe to scribbly), and a proper sense of the Anglo-Saxon world’s connection with other cultures (again, I don’t want to over-egg the pseudo-profound parallels to the modern day, but it should be obvious why it’s a good thing not to paint a false picture of the Anglo-Saxons as a self-contained culture that never even spoke to people from other parts of the world, let alone learned from them…)

There was also a selection of not-manuscripts, presumably in case visitors started getting bored; runic inscriptions are always frustratingly hard to read, I find, but it was all interesting, nevertheless, and I had another moment of not having realised the scale of something when I saw the Fuller Brooch, which is almost comically large. (Since it’s usually in the British Museum, which I have visited several times before, I’m not sure why I have no memory of seeing it before this, but maybe in the British Museum I was too busy staring at something else. Similarly, I paid a lot more attention to the Sutton Hoo buckle – as featured on the cover of Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English! – than I’ve done before.)

I have very few complaints, the most significant being that the exhibition curators seem to have been curiously unconcerned about giving full shelfmarks for manuscripts borrowed from other libraries. (What if I want to look them up later? Half the time even the conventional name of the manuscript isn’t mentioned until halfway through the label on the case!) Then again, I will doubtless cave in to temptation sooner rather than later and buy the exhibition catalogue, which will probably remedy this problem (along with providing more detailed discussion than the labelling in the exhibition offers, but I am resigned to the fact that having a textbook-sized explanation with full footnotes next to each exhibit would be a little impractical).

As always with manuscript exhibitions, it seems a terrible shame (though entirely understandable, of course) that everything is in a glass case, treated as a static object; returning to the theme of manuscripts being meant to be read, one can’t help wishing to turn the pages. In this particular case, it was hard to feel too short-changed when there was just so much to see, though! Yet another reason to be grateful for the ready availability of editions, facsimiles and photographs, of course, but I’ll certainly return to them with a new enthusiasm having seen the originals in the flesh.

[1] I spend a fair amount of time listening to academics who speak reverently of ‘the materiality of the manuscript’, and I will happily concede that some aspects of reading a manuscript can’t be conveyed (and can even be misrepresented) by a digital image. Even so, I hope I never completely lose the sense of excitement I get from knowing that even a poor-quality image of a manuscript makes it potentially accessible to so many people who will never have a chance to handle the original. Manuscripts were made to be read, after all.

(I also wonder what the scholars I study – early Anglo-Saxonists of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – would have thought about digitisation. If their enthusiastic circulation of transcriptions is anything to go by, I expect a lot of them would have been thrilled – and rather worryingly unconcerned about the materiality of the manuscript. But that’s a pseudo-profound historical parallel for another day.)

[2] My other favourite Old English poem for declaiming dramatically, The Battle of Maldon, doesn’t make an appearance in the exhibition, as it only survives in Early Modern transcription, the manuscript having met a tragic end in the Cotton Library fire of 1731. (Thinking of that fire – and it was hard not to, partly because so many of the manuscripts in the exhibition bore the scars of their narrow escape from it, and partly because I spent a lot of my spare time feeling sad about it in any case – definitely made me hope that the British Library’s fire safety standards are better than those in Ashburnham House, where the Cotton manuscripts were kept. Then again, if nothing else the British Library has a much less inauspicious name in this respect.)

Leeds IMC: mediævalist party!

Continuing the narrative from my last post, this is a report of the other conference I went to this summer: the International Mediæval Congress at Leeds. Every year, mediævalists from more or less anywhere and everywhere that one can think of descend on the Leeds university campus for several days. To give a sense of the scale of the event, the conference programme (helpfully posted out to us well in advance) was the approximate size of a phone book. Unsurprisingly, I got lost several times trying to find my way from one paper session to another, and I spent quite a bit more time frozen in agonies of indecision because too many interesting papers were happening at the same time and I couldn’t choose.

The thematic focus for this year’s IMC was ‘memory’. Given the number of papers and the breadth of the topic, there was a lot of variety in how people approached this, even without counting the various general sessions that weren’t designed to address the theme after all. Trying to give a taster of that variety feels like doing an injustice to all the excellent papers I wouldn’t be able to include in the list, but there were a lot. Even though I mainly stayed in my customary academic stomping grounds of Old English, that still included people showing off some very clever coding projects, a comparison of the use of multiple writing systems in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and modern Japanese, and (possibly my favourite, for reasons of nostalgia) a keynote talk by my old undergraduate lecturer Dr Richard Dance, featuring not only etymology but also his signature slide of pop-cultural depictions of Grendel. (If you didn’t know that the monster from Beowulf was the subject of an animated musical… well, now you do.)

I was taking part in a session called ‘Literary Linguistic Approaches to Old English Texts’, which means (very approximately) taking linguistic theories and using them to understand what’s going on in works of literature. My paper strayed furthest from that theme, talking mainly about how modern teaching and criticism can influence how we think about literary style in Old English, but nobody threw rotten fruit at me and overall I think I can say that a good time was had all round.

Even the most dedicated academic can’t spend four days doing nothing but listening to papers, though, and so the conference did also have a social programme. This has its uses for networking, as well as simply running into people you haven’t seen for a while, although in my case, my shaky memory for names and faces did at times turn the whole event into a parade of ‘I’m sure I met you at a conference once but I have no idea when or where’. (Thank goodness for name badges.) There was also plenty of fun, though: a craft fair, historical re-enactors, concerts of mediæval music and so on, as well as a disco and a lot of evenings in the pub. (Anyone who knows me will be unsurprised to learn that I spent rather less time at those last two; I can’t help my chronic lack of coolness.)

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See, it wasn’t all work! Some of the more photogenic parts of the IMC: music in the courtyard and pretty coloured wool at the craft fair.

All in all, an entertaining but exhausting week (which I will invoke as my excuse for taking another week to get round to writing this up). I have many notes to take, books to read and emails to send as a result – and, if I choose to go, it’s almost time to start thinking about topics for next year’s IMC. I’d certainly like to go back at some point, although rumour says that the US equivalent, held in Kalamazoo, is also worth a visit. It’s a busy life, it seems. Of course, to present a paper anywhere requires getting some research done, which is as good an excuse as any to sign off now and return to my books!

Glossaries and gelato

I am returning to this blog after an embarrassingly long absence with tales of not one but two conferences. Presenting at both in quick succession has involved a fair amount of juggling different academic hats and an exhausting amount of travel, but my train is speeding its way from Carlisle to Glasgow as I write this, and the end of the adventure is in sight. However, I will attempt to keep the story in a logical order, which means starting at the beginning with conference number one.

Said conference was the International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology, which, as the title of this post hints at, was being held in Italy. I was presenting an academic poster on identifying the most important dictionaries that I need to discuss in my PhD. (If anyone reading this is confused about why I would be discussing dictionaries, my previous blog post may be useful.) I may be almost a year into the thesis, but since I have so far been approaching my overview of historical dictionaries one case study at a time, there’s still plenty of room to fiddle around with what I’m including, and part of me was looking forward to the possibility that a notable academic would tell me that I’d missed something obvious. (Better to find out now than after submitting, after all!)

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The conference venue. Sometimes the PhD life has its perks.

It was my first experience of making an academic poster – at least, my first since I was an undergraduate, when I attempted to convey the grammatical complexities of Nakh-Daghestanian languages in visual form. (The internship scheme for which I made that poster was fascinating, and I learned a great deal, but I also learned that an A1 piece of paper is not the ideal medium for explaining the finer points of syntax and morphology to an audience of non-linguists.) In comparison, historical dictionaries and glossaries seemed a rather less daunting topic, although I still managed to incorporate one tremendously complicated diagram of which I am rather proud.

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The diagram. To summarise: it illustrates how a word from one 13th-century glossary (MS Harley 978, at the top of the page) made its way in various guises into various dictionaries. To summarise further: lexicographers tend to steal material from each other and it makes things complicated, hence the complicated diagram.

The poster session seemed to go down well with the other delegates, and I certainly enjoyed listening to everyone else’s papers. Historical lexicography and lexicology might sound like a rather restrictive topic for a conference, but there is room for a lot of variety under that umbrella, from versified dictionaries of Turkish to Norwegian language standardisation and from the language of Early Modern English religious debates to Anglo-Norman glosses. For most of the conference there were three sessions running in parallel, which meant that I missed a lot of papers I would have loved to hear.

All in all it was an excellent and very friendly conference, and I am very excited that, beginning in 2019, it will be held every year rather than every other year. What’s more, next year it will be held in Friesland, which may not be a holiday destination on the level of the Italian coast, but is linguistically very exciting, as the Frisian language is very closely related to English. More details will doubtless follow if I make it to next year’s conference, but I hope that I will have plenty of other things to report between now and then. At the very least I owe anyone reading this a write-up of my second conference trip of this summer, as alluded to above, so watch this space for further posts.

Three Minute Thesis

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My thesis in one image (more or less). If you want to see the actual talk that goes with it, click here!

People put a lot of emphasis these days on the importance of public engagement in academia, and in general terms I wholeheartedly approve. The aim of research is to make a contribution to knowledge, and it’s hard to claim that you’ve done that if the only people you tell about your findings are a handful of people at a conference. Nor is it much good if your explanations come wrapped in so many layers of jargon and buzzwords that they seem designed to show off your own intellectual superiority rather than communicate anything to your reader.

All that said, I tend to be a little more uncertain when it comes to my own case. I may have a long-standing pet peeve when it comes to the kinds of teachers who would actively discourage their students from learning something on the grounds that it was too “boring” or “difficult”, but I am aware that most people can only stand so long listening to me enthuse about Old English dictionaries before their eyes start to glaze over. That applies even to the undergraduate students I am meant to be teaching; I struggle to believe that I would get a much more enthusiastic response if I were to stand in Glasgow city centre and proclaim the good news of historical lexicography to hapless passers-by. In any case, as I frequently find myself telling people who want to know why I became a mediaevalist, one of the great attractions for me in studying dead languages was that it minimised my chances of ever having to speak to another real live human being. (I joke, but not entirely.)

My decision to enter Glasgow’s Three Minute Thesis competition for the second year running must therefore be put down to my being a glutton for punishment. For anyone not familiar with the concept, this involves standing up in front of a mixed audience of PhD students and anyone else in the university curious enough to attend, and, with only a single PowerPoint slide for backup, explaining exactly what it is you research. All in no more than three minutes. This presentation is filmed and then posted on YouTube for the benefit of posterity.

Anyone who knows me will appreciate just how far this is from my idea of a relaxing afternoon, but I am pleased to say that I did in fact survive the experience, and will proudly be making a note of this in my PhD annual progress review, under the heading of “Engagement, Influence and Impact”. But did I actually learn anything from it about public engagement? Both no and yes, I think.

No in that, however big the audience felt when I had to stand up in front of it, I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that I was speaking to a handful of people, of whom most were PhD students and all were in academia. Of course, there’s a lot more room, even within universities, to get people sharing what they do with each other, but it would be nice, ultimately, to learn how to speak to people outside the walls of the university as well! What’s more, even for this small, university-based audience, I found myself putting a lot more effort into explaining the general context of my research than what I do specifically. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make me conscious of still needing to put some thought into the distinction between, on the one hand, making something accessible and, on the other, stripping out all of the particulars on the blithe assumption that they are “too difficult”. Of course, part of the challenge of the Three Minute Thesis competition is finding that balance within a three-minute time limit, and conciseness is definitely a skill I could stand to develop further!

Yes in that being able to speak to an audience really is a useful skill, both within and outside academia, and it’s one at which I, at least, need all the practice I can get. And, whatever my reservations about striking the right balance between simplicity and complexity in my presentation, I have to admit that boiling down half a year’s worth (so far) of notes and essays and convoluted musings on methodology into a single soundbite does help in getting a sight of the thesis-forest from the middle of the research-trees. That’s useful for me writing it, but it’s also a necessary step in explaining it to someone else; the first thing you need when giving an explanation is some idea of what, ultimately, it is that you’re trying to explain.

Whether I achieved any of that at all, I will have to leave to you to decide, but I hope that if you watch the video you come away with at least a vague idea of what my PhD actually is. If you are just as confused as before, you are welcome to leave a comment telling me so, or simply to sit back and laugh at me making silly faces where the whole internet can see!

Thoughts on teaching Chaucer

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A rather gratuitous picture of the opening of the Canterbury Tales in the Hengwrt MS.

With a new year comes a new term, and with a new term comes new teaching. I still have the same History of English groups as last term, but from Old English (with a smattering of Old Norse just to keep them on their toes) we have moved on to Middle English – more specifically, to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

This required a little bit of revision on my part, since, while I had read the Pardoner’s Tale before, it was sufficiently long ago that I couldn’t even remember when or why I did so, let alone the details of the story itself. The basic narrative had stayed with me, but then it is rather memorable, containing as it does exciting amounts of stabbing, poisoning and general death, all tied up in a neat parcel of dramatic irony. Very cheerful stuff, which I won’t recap in any detail here.

However, going over the Pardoner’s Tale set me thinking about parallels in other areas of my studies – and no, I don’t mean that I am plotting the murder of any of my fellow PhD students. Rather, I was reflecting idly on how our curriculum’s leap from Old English into Middle English relates to my thesis topic. Put very briefly (and thereby conveniently minimising the risk of committing myself to something I won’t manage to follow through on), in my PhD thesis I am looking at that line between Old and Middle English, and at how academics and lexicographers have defined it and used it in different ways over time.

It should go without saying that the population of England didn’t wake up one morning in 1066 (or 1100, or 1150, or whenever else you might want to say that Middle English began) and say to themselves en masse, “This Old English is rather boring; why don’t we overhaul our case system and borrow some French vocabulary?” Language change isn’t that neat. But, going on what I’ve been teaching my seminar students, it might as well be.

Part of the issue here is that history is a lot bigger than we tend to think it is. Chaucer, who produced his works near the end of the 1300s, was certainly not the first Middle English writer. He is about as far removed in time from (say) the twelfth-century Ormulum (Middle English) as the Ormulum is from the Battle of Maldon (Old English). (Full disclosure here that I have not actually read the Ormulum, though it’s an important early Middle English text that I will have to tackle over the course of my thesis. However, I have been fond of the idea of it for years, partly because its author, Orm, came up with his own spelling system to use in it, and partly because of the charmingly logical reason he gives for its title: Þiss boc iss nemmnedd Orrmulum forrþi þatt Orrm itt wrohhte. ‘This book is named Ormulum because Orm made it.’) However, we have a limited amount of time, and it makes sense to hit the highlights. There’s a reason I haven’t yet read the Ormulum, and that is because – apart from its idiosyncratic spelling, if you are entertained by such things – it is infamously dull.

The jump to Middle English also brings with it a whole new set of expectations about how we study it. This is in part a matter of practicality; Chaucer’s language looks a lot more like modern English than the language of the Battle of Maldon does, and so it’s much more feasible to let students loose on large chunks of the former with very few preliminaries. But its also the case (not entirely, but I’m making generalisations here) that the two groups of texts are studied by rather different people with different interests. On the whole, for example, a lot more biographical criticism happens in Middle English studies than in Old English, and relatively less close scrutiny of manuscripts. (Though I must say that I have just been reading the chapter on the Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript in Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, and now want to tell my students all about it. It’s a good read and I would recommend the book even to non-mediaevalists.)

Of course, all of this raises the question of how much Old English and Middle English studies look so different simply because the surviving texts for each period are themselves very different. Or maybe they are a little bit different and the rest is the result of a self-perpetuating circle in which students learn to approach texts in more or less the same ways that their teachers did. Arguing about that could fill several blog posts – indeed, could fill a whole book – before even getting onto the question of whether that means we ought to be teaching things differently. So, with an apology for stopping just as things get interesting, I conclude my ramble. None of this is new ground, of course, but if nothing else it’s a taster of the kinds of things I spend my weekends musing about, as well as a glimpse of (one aspect of) my thesis in the wild.

Reading other people’s letters

I should probably begin with the clarification that the ‘other people’ in question are long dead, which makes what I was doing valid historical research rather than wildly inappropriate behaviour. To explain further: last Friday I had the pleasure of attending a symposium on the subject of Scholarly Correspondence on Medieval Germanic Language and Literature. This meant that all the letters we were talking about shed some light on the history and personalities of Old English scholarship, ranging from the big names (Bosworth and his Anglo-Saxon dictionary, the ideas of the German linguist Hermann Paul) to less well-known figures.

Considering how ideas and research were transmitted between scholars is an important part of my PhD; though I focus primarily on dictionaries rather than private letters as the vehicle of this transmission, there was a lot to interest me here. The papers presented covered a wide variety of topics, from the nineteenth-century German scholars whose hunt for English documents in Continental libraries led to the first complete transcriptions of the Vercelli Book and the Épinal Glossary, to Hanseatic law documents in Russia, to the story of the development of a catalogue of mediaeval Dutch literature. It wasn’t all serious, though; one of the nice things about looking at correspondence is that you can get a real sense of the people behind the scholarship. Sometimes they aren’t especially nice people, though they can be very amusing with their insults; my favourite was probably the description of the Rawlinson Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, written by one of his disappointed rivals for the post: “he has occupied his chair twelve months, and appears to have been taking a doze during that time”. (This thanks to the excellent paper of Daniel Thomas, Oxford.) But they can also be charming, as when the scholar A.G. van Hamel, staying in the house of an Icelandic friend, politely but firmly declined the loan of a pair of skis on the basis that he was too old for extreme sports (Arend Quak, Amsterdam).

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The symposium exhibition

A particular highlight of the day was the exhibition of materials from Leiden University Library, which included a letter from James Murray (of OED fame) enquiring about the etymology of the word ‘asparagus’. Another letter in the exhibition, received by Pieter Jakob Cosijn from the young scholar James Platt Jr, was, as Amos van Baalen and Jodie Mann explained in their paper, the beginning of a plagiarism scandal that led to Platt leaving Anglo-Saxon studies in disgrace. Not a letter, but very exciting to me nevertheless, was the Leiden University copy of William Somner’s Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum. This was owned by the Dutch scholar Jan van Vliet, who, I am pleased to say, annotated it carefully and extensively, making this one of the few copies I have seen with evidence of serious use.

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Guest starring my favourite dictionary!

However, probably the most enjoyable aspect of the day was simply the chance to meet other people who, however different their research topics and methods were, had come together to find a common point of interest in the idea that the day-to-day lives of scholars, their unpublished and informal interactions, can be just as important to understanding how we come to know – or think we know – the things we do about an area of study. I found it particularly interesting that many delegates, like me, had not started off intending to look at correspondence, but had come across the material for their papers while researching some different project. It seems that, sooner or later, the research trail leads us back to snooping into people’s letters. Who knows, maybe in a few hundred years’ time, someone will bring up this blog post in a conference paper about scholarship of the early twenty-first century. (I rather hope not, though…)