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Encoding Ireland: Dictionaries and Politics in Irish History

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 40:3&4, Fómhar/Geimhreadh / Fall/Winter 2005
pp. 119-139 | 10.1353/eir.2005.0017

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Éire-Ireland 40.3&4 (2005) 119-139

Dictionaries and Politicsin Irish History

Tony Crowley

In the foreword to Terry Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English (1999), Tom Paulin uses Heaney's "North" to illustrate the "movement and formation of language" which he characterizes as a matter of historical struggle, "heavy with violence, atavism, the memory of later invasions, and pitched battles." In contrast to this fraught, difficult, unceasing process, the texts which attempt to record its results are optimistic and eirenic: dictionaries "represent peace and plenty, and a delighted unaggressive confidence in the words, phrases, usages, and grammatical structures they catalogue." For Paulin dictionaries celebrate in an uncomplicated way the bounty of a language, marking the felicitous self-belief of those who use a particular vocabulary by means of uncontentious transcripts of lexical usage. It is an appealing account, and anyone who has enjoyed the pleasures of looking up a word in a major work of lexicography must feel its attraction. Among the recognizable delights of large dictionaries are finding the hidden histories of a word (its origins, past uses, the changes which it has undergone, words related to it); or coming across previously unknown, remarkable words. The entry for "loiter" in the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, tells us that the verb derives from the Middle Dutch "loteren," "to wag about (like a loose tooth)"; and on the same page we find "logodaedalus," "one who is cunning with words." Dinneen's Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla: Irish-English Dictionary informs us that "béarlach," "talking English," also means, by extension, "voluble." And a little down the page there is "bearadóir," "a prober, one who probes for bog-wood by means of an iron bar or spike with a wooden handle; the prober, having stuck the bar into the bog, applies his teeth to the timber handle to detect the bog-wood. . . ."

But does such linguistic fascination lead us astray when it comes to considering dictionaries historically? Are dictionaries really the peaceful, happy, and plentiful texts which Paulin celebrates? Or do they play a part in the eventful and often violent "movement and formation" of language and languages? Are they merely neutral catalogues of a language composed at a particular moment in time, or are they partisan texts which have an active role in the history of a language? These questions will be addressed in this essay in order to assess the cultural, political, and ideological significance of Irish dictionaries, old and new.

As Benedict Anderson argues, dictionaries are texts whose appearance has particular political significance. In the English tradition Richard Mulcaster's Elementarie (1582) made an early call for a text that "would gather all the words which we use in our English tongue, whether natural or incorporate, out of all professions, as well learned as not, into one dictionary" in order to ascertain their "right writing" and determine their "natural force and their proper use." The first monolingual English dictionary proper—Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604)—was designed to satisfy Mulcaster's appeal for the dictionary to act as a guide to orthography and meaning. Its primary task was to help "ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskillful persons" in their reading of the scriptures, sermons, or other texts by facilitating the "understanding of hard usual English words, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or French, &c.," through explanations in "plain English words." But the real importance of this first dictionary is the fact that it indicates both an increasing confidence in the English vernacular itself and in the role which the language (or a particular monologic conception of the language) played in the development of English nationalism.

The debates concerning English in the early modern period were posited around the question of whether the language was a medium for serious writing across a number of genres. Edmund Waller's "Of English Verse," written in the early to mid-seventeenth century, asked the question: "But who can hope his lines should long/ Last in a daily changing tongue?" The answer expressed a pessimistic view of vernacular literature:

When architects have done their part,
The matter may betray their art:
Time, if we use ill...

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