The Goethe Dictionary.

Gero Schliess reports on what the title accurately calls a “mammoth task”:

Precisely 70 years ago, the German Academy of Sciences in Berlin initiated the huge project of the Goethe dictionary – a lexicon precisely listing, describing and explaining every single word used by Goethe in his poems, dramas, letters, official writings and scientific essays.

In his speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the initiative, project manager Michael Niedermeier of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW) said that back then, the time was ripe for this project.

Following the Nazi era, people were yearning for the imperturbable values epitomized by Goethe and his era. At the time, nobody could have imagined that the project would go on over several generations, including the reunification of Germany.

Goethe commanded the biggest ever documented individual lexicon of 93,000 words. The researchers have collected everything, ranging from verbs and nouns to prepositions and articles. Martin Luther, by comparison, “only” commanded 23,000 words.

It took more than 20 years just to list and evaluate these 93,000 words. But now, an end is in sight. In terms of lexical evaluation, the present team consisting of 17 academics has reached the letters S and T. It is hoped that the project will be completed in 2025. Originally, the researchers had the year 2040 in mind. However, the patience and the budget of the BBAW and of the academies in Heidelberg and Göttingen cooperating with it turned out to be limited after all.

Michael Niedermeier says the dictionary, whose website is here, is a “central instrument of exploring Classicism, and it will take decades and centuries until its full effect will be realized.” Hyperbolic, perhaps, but surely one is permitted a bit of proud hyperbole when discussing a project like this. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    Maybe this doesn’t help with the “explaining” but I would think that a rather important development over the seventy years is the development of technology to the point where it ought to be a quick and straightforward exercise to get digital versions of the best available texts of pretty much everything Goethe ever wrote, load them into a single database, press a few buttons, and get a complete concordance, equivalent in detail to that that was probably generated by hand over the course of the first few decades of the project.

  2. Goethe commanded the biggest ever documented individual lexicon of 93,000 words.

    What do they mean by “word”? German concept of a word is quite extendable.

    The researchers have collected everything, ranging from verbs and nouns to prepositions and articles.

    Aren’t prepositions and articles form a closed set. Or they mean that the concordance was extended for them as well? (Seems a bit absurd)

    J.W. Brewer: […] get a complete concordance, equivalent in detail to that that was probably generated by hand over the course of the first few decades of the project.

    It took more than 20 years just to list and evaluate these 93,000 words.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    In the spring of ’84, my particular section of a college-freshman English class was reading Ulysses, and we were given an assignment that required going to the library, getting hold of a hard-copy concordance of it (the university owned multiple copies) and picking a particularly striking word, tracing it through the book, and then ruminating about its various usages. Now it’s easy to find free searchable online concordances of Ulysses, but it took a while to use the internet to find evidence of the prior existence of hand-generated hard-copy ones. I’m not actually 100% sure if the one I was able to find a few references to (originally done by Miles Hanley at the U. of Wisconsin in the 1930’s and then revised after his death to match up with a revised edition of Ulysses) is the one we used. Hanley (1893-1954) also worked during the ’30’s on the Linguistic Atlas of New England, so he was a scholar of wide-ranging interests.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    scientific essays

    Should rather be called “philosophy of nature”. Goethe refused to follow the evidence to such philosophically unappealing conclusions like white being a mixture instead of pure purity.

    Martin Luther, by comparison, “only” commanded 23,000 words.

    Ah, that was partly deliberate. Luther wasn’t trying to write poetry or philosophy, he was trying to render the Bible and his own religious musings in 1) as plain language as possible, 2) using words that would be as widely understood as possible. That imposes a least-common-denominator effect on his life’s work.

    What do they mean by “word”? German concept of a word is quite extendable.

    I suppose ad-hoc compounds that wouldn’t go into another dictionary aren’t in this one either.

  5. “I suppose ad-hoc compounds that wouldn’t go into another dictionary aren’t in this one either.”

    The Abend- words listed are:

    Abendscheiden
    Abendschein
    Abendschimmer
    Abendschmaus
    Abendsegen
    Abendseite
    Abendsendung
    Abendsession
    Abendsitzung
    Abendsonne
    Abendsonne-Glut
    Abendsonnenblick
    Abendspazieren
    Abendspazierfahrt
    Abendspaziergang
    Abendspiel
    Abendständchen
    Abendstern
    Abendstille
    Abendstrahl
    Abendstunde
    Abendtafel
    Abendtau
    Abendtee
    Abendtisch
    Abendunterhaltung
    Abendvorlesung
    Abendwäldchen
    abendwärts
    Abendwind
    Abendwindeskühle
    Abendwolke
    Abendwort
    Abendzeit
    Abendzeitung
    Abendzirkel

  6. [copy-paste mishap patch]

    Abend
    Abendanfrage
    Abendasche
    Abendbeleuchtung
    Abendbesuch
    Abendbetglocke
    Abendbrot
    Abendcollation
    Abenddämmerung
    Abendergötzung
    Abenderlustigung
    Abendessen
    Abendfest
    Abendfleiß
    Abendfliege
    Abendgebet
    Abendgelag
    Abendgesellschaft
    Abendgespräch
    Abendgestirn
    Abendglanz
    Abendglocke
    Abendgrüne
    Abendgruß
    Abendhauch
    Abendhimmel
    abendig
    Abendkollation
    Abendkonferenz
    Abendkost
    Abendkreis
    Abendkühle
    Abendkuß
    Abendland
    abendländisch
    abendlich
    Abendlicht
    Abendlied
    Abendluft
    Abendmahl
    Abendmahlzeit
    Abendmusik
    Abendopfer
    Abendplätzchen
    Abendpost
    Abendprediger
    Abendprobe
    Abendpromenade
    Abendregen
    Abendrot
    Abendröte
    abends
    Abendschatten

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Oh. Some of these do require an explanation and belong in a dictionary, but others are ad-hoc. Abendhimmel “evening sky” for instance.

  8. For words like that, though, it’s really functioning more as a concordance than a dictionary. The entry for “Abendhimmel,” for example, doesn’t bother to define the word but it does reveal that Goethe once used it as a rhyme for “Bim-Baum-Bimmel” in one of the great classics of Western literature.

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