The Friday Report: Put the fun back in Funk & Wagnall |

The Friday Report: Put the fun back in Funk & Wagnall

Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

The roots of the English language extend back to the cave paintings at Lascaux Grotto, in Dordogne, France. Carbon-14 dating puts that about 15,000-13,000 BC, but if you’re a Creationist, call it about 1958.

Found near the paintings was a curious narrative composition, leading linguists to believe there was a rudimentary written language used even then. Scientists have named this theoretical original language, Proto-Indo-European.

At first, things changed slowly. For 100,000 generations man was a hunter-gatherer, concerned with little more than subsistence and procreation, whereas a scant 80 generations separate us from the time of Christ.

About 2,500 BC, increasing populations caused a fanning outward across Europe and Asia and what started as this collective language broke up over time into regional varieties called dialects. Those widening dialects eventually became the 2,700 different languages that world inhabitants use today to express themselves. To be understood all across India, a person would have to know over 1,600 languages and dialects.

Latin is called a dead language, but that’s wrong on two counts. Thanks to the printed text, a person today can study and become fluent in Latin. They may get tired of talking to elderly Catholic priests, but it can be done. Secondly, Latin never died out, it just evolved into French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.

However, languages do die and vanish all the time. Oubykh was a Caucasian language spoken by 50,000 people living around the Crimea. In 1984, there was only one speaker of this complex language left alive. With 82 consonants and only three vowels, a conversation in Oubykh must have sounded like bowling balls in a clothes dryer. There were an estimated 1,000 languages in the New World when Columbus first landed. Five hundred years later, only 600 survive.

The first known dictionary was written in Latin in 1225, but early definitions were not necessarily alphabetical. Some grouped words by types. In 1558, words in A Shorte Dictionarie for Yonge Beginners were grouped by subject. Under beast, for example, comes a lengthy list of beasts with names and definitions. Shakespeare died in 1616, and still the English language lacked the point of reference provided in today’s dictionary. During the next hundred years, numerous dictionaries were published that limited themselves to unusual or difficult words, and were limited to a few thousand entries.

It wasn’t until 1755 when Samuel Johnson published his two-volume work, A Dictionary of the English Language, that the world had a modern English dictionary. With more than 43,000 entries, Johnson’s work provided definitions for the majority of the words in common usage at the time.

In 1788, Noah Webster published The American Spelling Book. It proved so popular that it sold over 60 million copies during the next 30 years. With the possible exception of the Bible, it is probably the bestselling book of all time.

But these were just warm-ups for the big enchilada: the Oxford English Dictionary. Conceived in 1857, it took 71 years to complete. The OED’s goal was to define every word used in the English language since 1150, tracing each word back to its origin, with a quotation showing its use in every century back to its first appearance.

The OED is probably the greatest work of scholarship ever produced. It contained 414,825 entries supported by 1,827,306 quotations (out of over 6 million collected) comprising 44 million words sprawled across 15,487 pages. Most people compare the excitement of linguistic study to that of knitting. But for those still awake who would like to know more, let me recommend two books: The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson and The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester.

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