Thank god for you language-loving readers, because otherwise, who would appreciate the wild joy I felt today on finding Andrew Dalby’s A Guide to World Language Dictionaries? This book has been out for five years now, and I never knew about it; why don’t publishers notify me immediately when they publish things so central to my concerns? This lists the best dictionaries available for around 300 languages, from Abkhaz to Zulu, and like Dalby’s equally wonderful Dictionary of Languages, it combines attention to detail with discursive descriptions in an irresistible way. The Introduction says:

For about half the world’s known languages there is probably some kind of published word-list or dictionary. For many of the better-known languages there is a large number of dictionaries to choose from, some of them simply in competition with one another, some dealing with a language variety, some offering different approaches to the same material. The catalogue of a large research library will include many thousands of language dictionaries.

This book is therefore very selective. The aim is to pick out those dictionaries that offer something more than a simple list of words placed along brief equivalents (‘glosses’) in another language…. [M]ost of the dictionaries listed here are likely to retain some value whatever else is published in their field. Typically, they not only list the vocabulary but also document it. They cite sources of information, oral or printed, and often quote them at length to show how a word is or was used. They suggest word origins, or discuss them at length with references to earlier scholarly work. They identify the special registers in which a word is used; they date its first or last recorded occurrence, and they supply the evidence to back up the dating.

This makes them among the most compelling of reference books. In many of the dictionaries listed here, every single article reports the results of original research, and each successive letter of the alphabet has taken years of labour to complete. Some, including the Oxford English Dictionary, can fairly be described as the greatest single literary enterprises in their language.

All right, that last sentence may be an overstatement, but if you can’t imagine thinking it in the rapture of poring through those closely printed Victorian pages, this book may not be for you. But if you have an unquenchable love for dictionaries and greedily collect them, I hope you can manage to at least find a copy in the library, because it will give you the same sort of vicarious thrill as travel guides that provide maps and lists of noteworthy sights in Samarkand, Isfahan, Timbuktu…

An example at random, from the SAMOYEDIC LANGUAGES section:

Nordische Reisen und Forschungen von M.A. Castrén. 1853-62. 12 vols.
    [Northern travels and researches of M.A. Castrén.] The result of two epic journeys in Arctic Russia and Siberia in 1842-4 and 1845-9. ‘We can follow his activities in his “Reiseberichte” and “Reiseerinnerungen”, which not only make very interesting reading, but at the same time are very valuable from ethnographical, geographical, historical and linguistic points of view. From these works we can see what superhuman will power and what self-sacrificing, heroic devotion to learning went into the preparation of the Samoyed grammar and dictionary. A Samoyed from Kanin, who happened to be in Finland, was a great help to him in this work. In 1851 he won the newly constituted chair of the Finnish language at Helsinki University. At this point Castrén was again stricken by his long ailment in 1852, and ended his earthly career after a few weeks of suffering. He was unable to complete the major fruit of his journey of several years, the Samoyed grammar. Castrén’s family sent the manuscripts he left behind to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, which entrusted his good friend Anton Schiefner with their publication’ (Péter Hajdú, The Samoyed peoples and languages, Bloomington: Indiana University, 1963, pp. 84-5, abridged). The collection includes:
    Grammatik der samojedischen Sprachen [Grammar of the Samoyed languages], 1854, in which the phonology of Nganasan, Enets, Selkup and Kamassian were completed by Schiefner. Verb morphology and syntax were never completed.
    Wörterverzeichnisse aus den samojedischen Sprachen [Word-lists from the Samoyed languages], 1855.

Oh, and I should add that for languages that don’t use the standard Roman alphabet, an alphabet is provided (so the researcher will know proper alphabetical order), and all titles are given in the native alphabet as well as in transcription. Maybe you can resist; I couldn’t.


  1. I didn’t quite underestand this last about the alphabet provided, Steve.

    Some kind of phonetic alphabet standing in for all the non-Latin alphabets?

  2. No, I mean the actual alphabet; the Georgian titles, for instance, are given in the Georgian (mkhedruli) alphabet. Sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. I was overexcited.

  3. Polyglot Dreamer says

    Came through on Google for the March 11 entry titled “THE POLYGLOT’S DREAM BOOK”… interestingly, just last night I had a dream in which the word polyglot came up. I did not outrightly know the definition for it and tried to describe a creature with many legs in my dream (ha!). When I woke up, for some reason this stuck out of a very long and involved dream (that was also somewhat nightmarish). In my waken state my first guess on the word’s meaning was correct, very wierd how the subconcious works. Anyway, thought you might enjoy that. Happy new year!

  4. Just pulled out my copy of the Guide for the first time in years and remembered how wonderful it is, and thought I’d bump the post to alert Hatters who weren’t here in 2003 to it.

  5. Just googled Keith Spalding’s An Historical Dictionary of German Figurative Usage, which Dalby says is nearing completion (“the last part I have seen is no. 54”), but it seems it never got beyond Fascicle 48 (1998). Sad!

  6. Although I guess maybe that was the last? No way to tell. You’d think the whole thing would have been published as a book if so.

  7. The Frühneuhochdeutsche Wörterbuch, on the other hand, is now complete in 12 volumes!

  8. Since they’ve been given a shoutout: Castrén’s Grammatik der samojedischen Sprachen, Wörterverzeichnisse aus den samojedischen Sprachen and also most if not all other parts of the Nordische Reisen und Forschungen series can be by now perused and downloaded via (as could be suggested by the release date).

    (There also happens to be a Manuscripta Castreniana project ongoing currently, publishing his remaining archive materials with commentary, and re-editing and republishing also his earlier works. The official unveiling date is the coming Monday, though a few volumes in the series have come out already.)

  9. amoyed from Kanin, who happened to be in Finland

    Suuuure. Castrén probably kidnapped him and dragged him over the border, keeping him in chains in a cold basement until he coughed up everything he knew, not to mention his lungs.

  10. January First-of-May says

    Suuuure. Castrén probably kidnapped him and dragged him over the border, keeping him in chains in a cold basement until he coughed up everything he knew, not to mention his lungs.

    …Surely anyone from Kanin would have been used to temperatures far lower than any that could naturally occur in a Finnish basement.

    (Admittedly the chains would have made it trickier.)

  11. David Marjanović says

    Relatedly, mean monthly sunshine hours in December: 0.0.

  12. Oh, and on guides to dictionaries, has the blog-form Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries: A Guide for the Perplexed been mentioned yet over at Languagehat? Writeups so far include PIE, Anatolian, Armenian, Hellenic and Tocharian, and a report of one earlier bibliography on the same topic.

  13. Yes indeed: PIE, Anatolian, Tocharian.

  14. Excellent, please carry on then.

    Keeping track of what’s been posted and what hasn’t is a bit of a challenge as a once-a-week-ish LH reader sometimes (and I’ve sometimes thought of starting an index of e.g. the interesting linguistics discussion threads).

  15. Do what I do and use a site search.

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