14.0585 lexicographical meditations: a sense of genre

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: 01/11/01

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 585.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
             Date: Thu, 11 Jan 2001 07:31:25 +0000
             From: lachance@chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
             Subject: A sense of genre
    Subscribers to Humanist are no doubt aware of an impressive corpus of
    Renaissance English dictionaries prepared by Professor Ian Lancashire and
    which may be accessed using the following URL
    I was reading recently an article by Ian Lancashire, "Editing English
    Renaissance Electronic Texts," collected in _The Literary Text in the
    Digital Age_ edited by Richard J. Finneran (University of Michigan Press,
    1996).  I was impressed by the possibilities Professor Lancashire's work
    with Renaissance dictionaries opens up for reflection upon the
    intellectual history of lexicography.
    A statement with echoes of McLuhan caught my attention and sent me off to
    read Ian Lancashire's contribution to _English Language Corpora, Design,
    Analysis and Exploitation_ ed. by Jan Aarts, Pieter de Haan and Nelleke
    Oostdijk (Rodolphi, 1993) and then to the corpus itself . Unfortunately
    his contribution to that volume entitled "The Early Modern English
    Renaissance Dictionaries Corpus" where I found:
    "Research problems in repurposing early dictionaries involve [...
    tagging ... lemmatizing... and] better capturing the 'fuzziness of the
    English Renaissance, which lacked formal lexicons and the notion of
    'fixed' senses." (p. 19)
    which I believe became by 1996 the following claim:
    "When speaking about the various _senses_ of a word, Renaissance writers
    mean, literally, those different sense experiences, or perceptions, to
    which that word was conventionally applied as a sign. The very absence
    of a Renaissance dictionary of the kind Johnson wrote is consistent
    with this interpretation of how the period understood language." (p. 135)
    Much of this becomes clearer in a text publish in the Computing in the
    Humanities Working Papers series in 1994, "An Early Modern English
    Dictionaries Corpus 1499-1659"
    "These early dictionaries are written as if words were best explained
    by identifying them with, or in the context of, things in the living
    world that people can experience every day. There is little evidence
    that these early lexicographers thought of general classes and select,
    distinctive features or of a semantics that exists, conceptually,
    apart from the everyday world into which the Renaissance citizen was
    born, lived, and died."
    The McLuhan echo reverberated with commonplace often attributed to Pound
    via his reading of Levy_Bruhl ---- vernacular languages fall from the
    concrete into abstraction. But I, myself, do not want presently to fall
    into ideology critique. Neither do I have the breadth of reading
    experience in dealing with this corpus not depth of learning sufficient to
    assess Professor Lancashire's claim that Renaissance lexicographers did
    not use referential definition or 'fixed senses'. I do want to ask if
    Professor Lancashire's observations about the nature of the dictionary
    entries might not also point less to a way of relating language and workd
    and more to the difficulty of differentiating genres. How does a
    researcher's understanding of a period's understanding of glossary, word
    list, thesaurus, encyclopedia, affect the content modelling necessary for
    developing an electronic edition. How much is the typographic convention
    (absent in the Renaissance) of numbering separate meanings under a head
    word a precursor of terminological databases (which usually cannot abide
    the amibutuity of homographs and polysemy)? Has anyone aligned the rising
    hegemony of the computational model in the 19th century and a history of
    lexicography? If so, would this be an interesting case for the perenial
    question you, Willard, tend with your gardens of words, which to
    paraphrase the Ortus Vocabulorum (1500), like flowers, herbs, fruit by
    which are strengthened bodies and by which spirits are refreshed, words
    furnish the mind, adorn speech?
    Does play/work with the computer help/hinder in rethinking the
    concrete/abstraction pair?
    Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large
    Member of the Evelyn Letters Project

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