The dictionary man: ‘These days I won’t get out of bed for a word unless it’s been used hundreds of thousand of times’
The OED’s outgoing editor has overseen the title’s transition to digital, and now the problems of documenting language changes in our texting, tweeting age
There is something faintly comic, now, about the pioneering work John Simpson did when he took over the Oxford English Dictionary in the mid 1980s. Not the concise one, at one point in almost every home, the grand solver of Scrabble rows, but the massive 20 volume one that haunts the corner of serious libraries the world over.
“At the end of the 1970s, the university was considering mothballing it,” he says, in his office at the Oxford University Press, next to, predictably a fairly large library containing nothing but dictionaries. “Then, in the mid 1980s this opportunity arose to scan or keyboard the whole of it, and transfer it on to CD Rom and magnetic tape.”
He may not have saved the OED, a work of not even nearly paralleled significance as a historical record of the world’s pre-eminent language, but he certainly re-invigorated it. Later this year, after 37 years of historical lexicography - searching for uses of words as far back as records will allow, and using their evolution to illuminate the history of culture and civilisation - the 59-year-old is to stand down as the dictionary’s Chief Editor.
After the magnetic tape, and the CD-ROM came, you may have noticed, the internet, but Simpson is more sceptical than some about just how revolutionary its implications are on the language.
“People write more now than they did even in the very old days. When I was growing up, apart from what you wrote at school, and maybe birthday and christmas thank you letters, that was it. Now you’re doing it in all your spare time, you’re texting somebody Even if you don’t know how to text, your grand daughter or someone knows how to so you have to learn. So people are much freer and more open in what they write about, and you’re more likely to accept acronysms, SMS speak. LOL is in the OED already. Some of these things are older than you think. You see C.U. way back in history, far older than its SMS usage. But that doesn’t upset the core of the language, which is pretty solid and pretty standard and has been for a long time.
“Big changes aren’t happening so fast as they were in the old days. If you lived in 1000, and then looked ahead to 1500 you wouldn’t understand the words and the accents that were being used then, especially with the influx of French. I don’t see such cataclysmic change happening in the future.
“From 1750 or so, from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, things really haven’t changed so much. Whereas 250 years before Johnson it was dogged by non-standardisation. In the middle ages it was a series of dialects.
“I’m probably slower to accept that there is a massive change on the way, because I’m aware that there has been a lot of stability over the last few centuries. I don’t think a completely new form of language is going to come out of the technological changes we’re seeing now. I’d be very surprised if it did. “
Ever since the OED was founded, in the mid-nineteenth century, English has been the language of the world, a notion that only recently has been under threat - at least through peaceful means. Whether it outlasts the transferring of power and wealth to the east, is not simply a socio-economic matter.
“In the 80, my predecessor Bob Burchfield, gave lectures where he claimed that in 200 years time, British and American English would be mutually incomprehensible. Now the question is more whether in 200 years time whether English will be of any significance on the world stage at all, whether it will have been overtaken by Chinese, or Indian. I can’t tell where things are going to go, but there are difficulties with the Chinese and Indian languages becoming the principle language, because people from outside those areas will have to learn new alphabets. It would be quite a complicated shift. But perhaps the Chinese and Indian languages will shift themselves, in such a way that makes them more easy to accommodate. I would be suspicious of the possibility at the moment, but things change so quick that who’s to say in 50 years things won’t be very different.”
On Mr Simpson’s watch the OED is now updated every three months, far more regularly than before, and over 60,000 new words and definitions have been added. On his desk is a stack of A4, 107 pages thick, with a post-it note on the front on which the word ‘EYE’ is written. “Yes, these are all the definitions for eye. I’ve been looking at eye-shadow recently,” he says. “I’ve found early uses of the term on databases for American local newspapers. Eye-wash. A wash or lotion from the eye, from the 19th century. Now we’ve found examples back to the 18th century. And it also means nonsense, which comes from the late nineteenth century. But we’ve just found an example from The Times, in 1872, of that usage, so that’ll be in the next edition.”
The work is essentially the same in nature to when its first editor Sir James Murray, began in 1879, except there is more emailing and less letter-writing. But the 21st century dictionary is a subtly but noticeably different undertaking.
“When I started writing in the 1970s we were aware that our target audience was Oxford dons, the sort of people who would have access to and be interested in this 20 volume thing. Now it’s online we’re conscious that its accessible to a much wider range of people. We don’t want to lower the quality of the analysis that we do, but we do want to make it more open and more accessible to a broader range of people.”
The opportunity to link too, is a landmark shift. In a computerised world, “You could link through to the OED in poems, for example. Take a word like darkling. A pupil comes across that word in a poem, and if he can link through to the OED entry for it, it can tell you something about the resonance of that word for the poet - what the word meant when he or she wrote it. That’s far more effective, if you come across a word that you don’t understand, than you putting your hand up and your teacher saying ‘oh it means this.’.
Simpson refuses to be drawn on his favourite words, regarding them as “objects of scientific study rather than cosy little things”, explaining his interest is more in “what image you can draw of a word, in terms of what compounds and derivatives it has, in examples from the past.” One example is “civil” and “uncivil”. “Why should civil have such such a different profile to uncivil. Civil has all sorts of meanings. Uncivil is used in a much narrower context.”
The dawning of the on-line age has, if anything, made it harder for new words to be included. Once, “five references over five years” was enough, but now with Google, that means every spelling mistake imaginable would be worthy of inclusion. If say, a new word went rival, as the imaginative and newly coined insult, cockhat, did on Twitter, after it was used in a rather rude email, it would now need “to be used in a variety of sources, hundreds of thousands of times, before I would even get out of bed to look at it.”
Michael Shannon Reads Sorority Email.
If tongue could cut for any reason, and as the sword could do, the dead would be infinite.
Twitter Tongues Shows Geographical Multilinguality Of London And NYC
“Twitter truly seems to be an all-knowing entity. If we would like to see how many people are talking about chipmunks in Italy, it could tell us in a second, with even more precise data for regions and cities. Twitter Tongues uses Twitter to show us the languages of tweets sent from London and New York in the summer of 2012, and provides a unique look into these multilingual cities.”
Sometimes when I am weary of seeing things in that flat, three-dimensional manner once so much boasted of, two plus two, and all the rest, there seems to be no longer any precise moment when old Unguentine vanished from my life, it seems rather an almost gradual process that went on over many years and as part of a great rhythm, as if, through some gentle law of nature, his disappearance would be followed by his gradual reemergence, that he would come back, so on, so forth.
In conjunction with one of our current exhibitions, “Exploration 2013: The 27th Annual Juried Exhibition of the Chicago Calligraphy Collective,” we look back at a past Purchase Prize: “September 1, 1939” by Carl E. Kurtz, a work that attempts to recuperate a line of W.H. Auden’s poetry that the poet himself disavowed.
“We must love one another or die” appears in the penultimate stanza of “September 1, 1939” (the poem), although in certain anthologies Auden either had the line expunged or appended with a note explaining he considered it “trash” he was “ashamed to have written.” Auden wrote the poem in consideration of, and ostensibly on, the day Hitler invaded Poland and officially sparked the Second World War. From “one of those dives/On Fifty-second Street” the speaker helplessly sips a pint while all hell breaks loose across the Atlantic. Diagnosing a dark personal history as the cause of the conflict (“Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return”), he prescribes an intimate form of love, reproducing itself until it comes to define global politics. In his subsequent self-censorship, Auden repented the peccadillo of sentimentality born of an impulsive moment. But perhaps Auden rejected not the philosophical content but the emotional excess of the line. As Peter Levine puts it, “Auden is asking whether his own love is ‘normal’—and also whether human love (in general) is a source of evil or a solution to it.” Love and hate might not be distinct categories so much as two sides of the same coin; love of one’s country, of one’s race can, for example, launch a holocaust.
The Kurtz piece is visually arresting. According to Kurtz, the letterforms are meant to highlight the “non-utilitarian design” over the “utilitarian function of the written word.” Indeed, one of the surprises after careful study is the realization that there has been decipherable language within the calligraphic design all along. The outer of the two concentric circles contains Auden’s “we must love one another or die,” while the inner ring is Jesus’ injunction to his disciples in John 13:34 to “love one another.” The design is meant to harmonize the two quotes. “By changing the horizontal writing line and making it circular the messages loop, the ending always returns to the beginning and thus they repeat themselves infinitely,” says Kurtz. Alternatively, the opposite could be said to be true. As the two lines of text follow the same circular motion, they orbit one another on separate paths that will never intersect.
Geneticists Estimate Publication Date of The Iliad
Genomes and language provide clues on the origin of Homer’s classic
(ISNS)—Scientists who decode the genetic history of humans by tracking how genes mutate have applied the same technique to one of the Western world’s most ancient and celebrated texts to uncover the date it was first written.
The text is Homer’s “Iliad,” and Homer — if there was such a person — probably wrote it in 762 B.C., give or take 50 years, the researchers found. The “Iliad” tells the story of the Trojan War — if there was such a war — with Greeks battling Trojans.
The researchers accept the received orthodoxy that a war happened and someone named Homer wrote about it, said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England. His collaborators include Eric Altschuler, a geneticist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, in Newark, and Andreea S. Calude, a linguist also at Reading and the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico. They worked from the standard text of the epic poem.
The date they came up with fits the time most scholars think the “Iliad” was compiled, so the paper, published in the journal Bioessays, won’t have classicists in a snit. The study mostly affirms what they have been saying, that it was written around the eighth century B.C.
That geneticists got into such a project should be no surprise, Pagel said.
“Languages behave just extraordinarily like genes,” Pagel said. “It is directly analogous. We tried to document the regularities in linguistic evolution and study Homer’s vocabulary as a way of seeing if language evolves the way we think it does. If so, then we should be able to find a date for Homer.”
It is unlikely there ever was one individual man named Homer who wrote the “Iliad.” Brian Rose, professor of classical studies and curator of the Mediterranean section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, said it is clear the “Iliad” is a compilation of oral tradition going back to the 13th century B.C.
“It’s an amalgam of lots of stories that seemed focused on conflicts in one particular area of northwestern Turkey,” Rose said.
The story of the “Iliad” is well known, full of characters like Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Agamemnon and a slew of gods and goddesses behaving badly. It recounts how a gigantic fleet of Greek ships sailed across the “wine dark sea” to besiege Troy and regain a stolen wife. Its sequel is the “Odyssey.”
Classicists and archeologists are fairly certain Troy existed and generally know where it is. In the 19th century, the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann and the Englishman Frank Calvert excavated what is known as the Citadel of Troy and found evidence of a military conflict in the 12th century B.C., including arrows and 5 feet of burned debris around a buried fortress. Whether it was a war between Troy and a foreign element, or a civil war is unknown, Rose said.
The compilation we know as the “Iliad” was written centuries later, the date Pagel is proposing.
The scientists tracked the words in the “Iliad” the way they would track genes in a genome.
The researchers employed a linguistic tool called the Swadesh word list, put together in the 1940s and 1950s by American linguist Morris Swadesh. The list contains approximately 200 concepts that have words apparently in every language and every culture, Pagel said. These are usually words for body parts, colors, necessary relationships like “father” and “mother.”
They looked for Swadesh words in the “Iliad” and found 173 of them. Then, they measured how they changed.
They took the language of the Hittites, a people that existed during the time the war may have been fought, and modern Greek, and traced the changes in the words from Hittite to Homeric to modern. It is precisely how they measure the genetic history of humans, going back and seeing how and when genes alter over time.
For example, they looked at cognates, words derived from ancestral words. There is “water” in English, “wasser” in German, “vatten” in Swedish, all cognates emanating from “wator” in proto-German. However, the Old English “hund” later became “hound” but eventually was replaced by “dog,” not a cognate.
“I’m an evolutionary theorist,” Pagel said. “I study language because it’s such a remarkable culturally transmitted replicator. It replicates with a fidelity that’s just astonishing.”
By documenting the regularity of the linguistic mutations, Pagel and the others have given a timeline to the story of Helen and the men who died for her — genetics meets the classics.