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History of Dictionaries 
Published 2006/3/1
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For everything under the sky there is a beginning and an end. Though for many things, we will not be there to see the end, fortunately we can trace the beginnings of many things. The discipline of tracing back the beginning of an entity’s life cycle is history. On that count everything that exists under the sky will have a history. The same thing applies to the history of dictionaries. Not many sources that talk about the history of dictionaries. The importance of this article is derived from the existing limitation on the available sources on the history of dictionaries.

Before getting into the discussion on the history of dictionaries, we need to define clearly the meaning of the term dictionary. Dictionary can be defined as an anthology of words of a language. To make the reference easier, the words in a dictionary will be arranged in alphabetical order. However, the term dictionary is loosely understood as any alphabetically arranged collection of written material on any coherent subject or field.

The first recorded form of dictionary much to the surprise of many is dated back to the 7th century BC. It is interesting to note that the concept of dictionary was conceived in

7th century BC. This first dictionary belongs to the library of the Ashurbanipal, the king of Assyria, Nineveh. As one can expect the dictionary was not a paperback!!! It was clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions. Followed by this in terms of chronology was the Latin dictionary by Verrius Flaccus. Though we are unable to exactly place this dictionary in time line, it was opined by the scholars that it must have been written around 3rd or 2nd century BC.

The evidence of next available dictionary takes a leap to 5th century AD and later. These dictionaries take a big leap not only in terms of chronology but, it also takes big leap in terms of Geographical location. The 5th AD century dictionaries are Sanskrit dictionaries. These are polyglot dictionaries in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese. During this time were also found dictionaries in botany, astronomy and medicine in Sanskrit. Following these, were dictionaries in Hebrew between 6th to 8th centuries AD.

How about the sophisticated Greeks and Romans? Did their sophisticated minds not conceive anything on collection and listing of the words of their language? The Greeks had something similar to glossaries of unusual words and phrases rather than a comprehensive and exhaustive collection of words of their language.

The need for bilingual and multilingual dictionaries was realized at a greater magnitude with the advent of mass movement of people enabled by trade and commerce – there was a growing need to learn and master foreign languages. One such bilingual dictionary dates back to 1502 AD, it was initially compiled by an Italian monk by name Ambrogio Calpeno. This work was later extended to incorporate Italian, French and Spanish. The same work grew to become a massive work that had a collection of eleven languages in 1590.

After this period there was a huge explosion on the number and availability of dictionaries. It is difficult to keep track of the outburst of dictionaries and list them all after this period.


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