A Sixth Grade Vocabulary Notebook
The sixth grade language arts class at the school in Altadena, CA, which my daughter attends, has a weekly set of vocabulary exercises which they keep in a simple composition notebook. Each week the teacher picks two vocabulary words (eg: passage, intelligent) and throughout the week the students fill in bits of knowledge about the word itself. On Monday they write down the word, a preliminary definition of it in their own words, a quick sketch or drawing of their perception of the word, and any prior knowledge they have of it. On Tuesday they revisit the words and look up dictionary definitions and write them down in their notebooks. On Wednesday they compose an original sentence using the words. Thursday finds them filling in spaces under each word with their morphologies, and variations with prefixes and suffixes. Finally on Friday they complete the weekly exercise by writing down synonyms and antonyms for the week’s words.
When I saw their notebooks at a recent open house night, it immediately reminded me of a now partially forgotten lexicographer’s and grammarian’s practices of excerpting (ars excerpendi) and collecting examples of sentences and words on slips of paper. Examples of this can be seen in the editing and creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (Latin for Thesaurus of the Latin Language), and the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache (German for Dictionary of the Egyptian Language).
I first became aware of the practice when reading Simon Winchester’s entertaining book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. In the book , Winchester describes the pigeonhole and slip system that Oxford professor James Murray and collaborators used to create the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The editors of the dictionary put out a call to readers to note down interesting everyday words they found in their reading along with example sentences and source references. They then collected these words alphabetically into pigeonholes and from here were able to collectively compile their magisterial dictionary which uses the collected example sentences. While tangentially about the creation of the OED, the heart of the fascinating story in the book focuses on Dr. William C. Minor, a Civil War veteran and a convicted murderer living in Britain in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, who began a long written correspondence with James Murray by sending in over ten thousand slips with words from his personal reading. Many years went by between the two men before the dictionary editor realized that his collaborator was in an insane asylum. The 1998 book was ultimately turned into the 2019 movie starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn.
Thesaurus Linguae Latinae
Somewhat similar to the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary which predated it is the ongoing compilation of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (TLL). An academic research project begun in 1894 and projected to be finished by a team of international scholars sometime around 2050, the TLL is a massive dictionary written entirely in Latin which contains every instance of every known Latin word in every known medium (manuscripts, scrolls, artworks, coins, buildings, monuments, graffiti, etc.) from the beginning of the language down to the 2nd century CE and from then on, every lexicographically significant instance from that time until the 6th century CE.
The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae used the Meusel system for creating zettel (a German word meaning slip) by utilizing double folio sheets onto which they copied text in hectographic ink which can be reproduced by lithography before cutting them up into individual slips. It took approximately five years of collecting and excerpting material before the researchers of the TLL began writing “articles”, by which they mean individual entries in their dictionary of Latin words. Because of the time-consuming work to research and write individual articles, researchers are individually credited within the Thesaurus for their work on individual words.
Between the 2nd and 6th centuries CE, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae doesn’t excerpt every single word in written Latin, just what the researchers thought was lexicographically significant. As an example, they didn’t excerpt all of Saint Augustine’s works because if they had, the collection would have been approximately 50% larger because Augustine was such a prolific writer.
The magisterial zettelkasten (German for slip box) which powers the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae is befittingly housed on the top floors of the Residenz, the former palace of the Bavarian royal family, now a part of the Bavarian Academy (Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften) in Munich, Germany.
The slips in the TLL’s collection are organized alphabetically by headword (or catchword) in a box in the top right hand side of the card and then secondarily by their appearance or publication in chronological time, which is indicated in a box on the top left of each slip. The number of copies of each slip is written in the bottom left hand corner and circled. Within the text excerpts on the cards themselves, occurrences of the word are underlined in red.
Basic statistics regarding the Thesaurus:
- comprised of approximately 55,000 ancient Latin vocabulary words
- 10,000,000+ slips
- stored in about 6,500 boxes
- with approximately 1,500 slips per box
- excerpted from a library of 32,000 volumes
- contributors: 375 scholars from 20 different countries, with:
- 12 Indo-European language specialists
- 8 romance language specialists
- 100 proof-readers
- approximately 44,000 words published in their dictionary already
- published content: 70% of the entire vocabulary
- print run: 1,350 copies
- Publisher: consortium of 35 academies from 27 countries on 5 continents
- Longest remaining words which remain to be compiled into the dictionary
- non / 37 boxes of ca. 55,500 slips
- qui, quae, quod / 65 boxes of ca. 96,000 slips
- sum, esse, fui / 54.5 boxes of ca. 81,750 slips
- ut / 35 boxes of ca. 52,500 slips
As a point of comparison, the upper end of prolific academic researchers and note takers who use index card collections for their lifelong research (25-40 year careers) have compiled collections of 90,000 (Niklas Luhmann), 70,000+ (Gotthard Deutsch), 30,000 (Hans Blumenberg), 27,000+ (S.D. Goitein) and 12,500 slips (Roland Barthes). This means that there are individual Latin words in the TLL have more slips than these researchers produced in their research lifetimes.
While many think of Latin as a “dead language”, something one notices quickly about the articles in the TLL is that words changed meanings over the span of time which they were in use. Linguists call this change in word meaning over time semantic shift. Many articles focus on these subtle changes and different meanings over time. Often words with only a few hundred attestations in the corpus of the language will be quoted and cited in articles about them with every example of use along with their contexts to help highlight these subtleties. Just like people had the choice of which words to use in the ancient world, we have those same choices today and this is where the use of modern dictionaries and thesauruses can make our words and word choices more exciting.
Normally, a dictionary just tells you what words mean—and of course we do that—but the scale of the project gives us the space and opportunity to say what we’re not sure of too. This is important because it leaves the door open for further scholarship and it gives the reader choices rather than dictating to them what to think. The dictionary can be a catalyst for more research and this is what makes the dictionary a living thing.—Adam Gitner, a TLL scholar
For those interested in more details on the TLL, Kathleen Coleman’s presentation on YouTube is a fantastic resource and primer on what is in it, how they built it and current work:
TLL Podcast and the Wordhord
Based on the history and usage of the Latin word horreum, which is featured in the first episode of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae podcast, I can’t help but think that not only is the word ever so apropos for an introduction to some of the TLL, but it does quite make an excellent word for translating the idea of card index in English or Zettelkasten from German into Latin: “My horreum is a storehouse or treasury for my thoughts and ideas which nourishes my desire to discover and build upon my knowledge.” One might also notice that the Latin word horreum is also cognate with the fun Old English word “wordhord” that one encounters in classics like Beowulf and which roughly translates as one’s brain or their memory, especially for words.
Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache (A Dictionary of the Egyptian Language)
Like the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache was an international collaborative zettelkasten project. Started in 1897, it was finally published as five volumes in 1926.
The structure of the filing system for the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache (Wb) was designed based on the work done for the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae started three years earlier. Texts in the collection were roughly divided into passages of about 30 words and written in hieroglyphic form on postcard-sized slips of paper. The heading contained the designation of the text and the body included the texts’ context (inscriptions, etc.) as well as a preliminary translation of the passage.
These passages were then cross-referenced with other occurrences of the hieroglyphics to provide better progressive translations which ultimately appeared in the final manuscript. As a result some of the translations on the cards were incomplete as work proceeded and cross-comparisons of individual words were puzzled out.
With support from the German Research Foundation, the 1.5 million sheets of the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache began to be digitized and put online in 1997. The Digitized Card Archive (DZA) of the Dictionary of the Egyptian Language (Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache) has been available on the Internet since 1999. The archive can be searched at: https://aaew.bbaw.de/tla/servlet/DzaIdx. Since 2004, the materials and query functions have been integrated into the larger Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae project at https://aaew.bbaw.de/thesaurus-linguae-aegyptiae.
Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache by Adolph Erman and Hermann Grapow can be viewed online using the Wb. browser at https://aaew.bbaw.de/tla/servlet/WbImgBrowser. Links from reference points within the dictionary go directly to corresponding slips of paper in the digitized slip archive.
Although he’s a fictional character, given one could suppose that given his areas of specialization in archaeology, Indiana Jones would certainly have been aware of the Wörterbuch, would likely have used it, and may even have worked on it as a young college student.
The method used for indexing the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache and the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae is now generally known as a key word in context (KWIC) index. The design of these sorts of indices is now a subject within the realm of computer science and database design. Given that the work on the TLL has taken over 100 years, could it be possible that digital versions might speed up the process of excerpting, collating, and writing articles in the future? Perhaps these examples might be used for compiling other languages in the future.
Modern day practice: Wordnik and Hypothes.is
Having looked at some historical word and idea collecting practices, how might one do this sort of work in a modern, digital world? A similar word collecting scheme is currently happening on the internet now, though perhaps with a bit more focus on interesting neologisms (and hopefully without many insane asylum patients.) The lovely folks at the online dictionary Wordnik have been using the digital annotation tool Hypothes.is to collect examples of words as they happen in the wild. One can create a free account on the Hypothes.is service and quickly and easily begin collecting words for their dictionary efforts by highlighting example sentences and tagging them with “wordnik” and “hw-[InsertFoundWordHere]”.
So for example, I was reading about the clever new animations in the language app Duolingo and came across a curious new word (at least to me): viseme.
To create accurate animations, we generate the speech, run it through our in-house speech recognition and pronunciation models, and get the timing for each word and phoneme (speech sound). Each sound is mapped onto a visual representation, or viseme, in a set we designed based on linguistic features.
So I clicked on my handy browser extension for Hypothes.is, highlighted the sentence with a bit of context, and tagged it with “wordnik” and “hw-viseme”. The “hw-” prefix ostensibly means “head word” which is how lexicographers refer to the words you see defined in dictionaries.
Then the fine folks at Wordnik are able to access the public annotations matching the tag Wordnik, and use Hypothes.is’ API to pull in the collections of new words for inclusion into their ever-growing corpus of examples. Lexicographers can then use examples of words appearing in context to define, study, and research their meanings and their shifts in meaning over time.
Since I’ve collected interesting new words and neologisms for ages anyway, this has been a quick and easy method of helping out other like-minded wordhoarders along the way. (Note how this last sentence has brought wordhord back into more active usage with a tinge of shift?!) In addition to the ability to help out others, a side benefit of the process is that the collected words are all publicly available for reading and using in daily life! You can not only find the public page for Wordnik words on Hypothes.is, but you can subscribe to it via RSS to see all the clever and interesting neologisms appearing in the English language as collected in real time! So if you’re the sort who enjoys touting new words at cocktail parties, a rabid cruciverbalist who refuses to be stumped by this week’s puzzle, or a budding lexicographer yourself, you’ve now got a fantastic new resource! I’ve found it to be far more entertaining and intriguing than any ten other word-of-the-day efforts I’ve seen in published calendar or internet form.
If you like, there’s also a special Hypothes.is group you can apply to join to more easily aid in the effort. Want to know more about Wordnik and their mission, check out their informative Kickstarter page.
Expanding the sixth grade practice
The basic pedagogic exercise I’ve described above is an incredibly solid base for nearly any school-aged child. But with some of the historical context we’ve explored, the weekly word notebook exercise could be expanded. Some could be done during the week while others could be done at a later date/time, which could serve as potential (spaced repetition) reminders to students as they see words throughout the year potentially for bonus points.
What is the earliest attestation (evidence or proof of existence) of a word?
Can students find attestations of their words during their weekly reading or reading later in the year?
What is the word’s etymology? What other words sound like it or are related to it? What words are cognate to it in other languages they might be studying/learning? These could be collected too.
What new and interesting words are students coming across that they haven’t seen before in their own reading? Bonus points for doing additional words they find themselves, or add them to the queue of the words the teacher assigns on future weeks.
Double bonus points for finding new words in their reading that are neologisms which aren’t in the dictionary yet. Can they find and add words to the Wordnik dictionary using Hypothes.is?
Instead of using a notebook for their supplemental wordhord, students might try the older practice of keeping their words on index cards and storing them in a zettelkasten just like the OED, the TLL, or the Wb. A shoebox works nicely and can be fun to decorate, but there are fancier boxes out there. Here they might also be used as flashcards for occasional review. Students can index them alphabetically and perhaps their example sentences may come in handy later in life while they’re doing their own writing (see Draft No. 4 and boxing words.) Perhaps their collections will come in handy at the end of high school when they take the SAT or the ACT tests? Might their collections rival those of famed academics like Niklas Luhmann, Gotthard Deutsch, Hans Blumenberg, S.D. Goitein or Roland Barthes? Maybe they’ll become professional lexicographers and help to finish up work on the TLL later in life?
For a fun math exercise, can students calculate how long it would take them (individually or as a class) to copy out 10,000,000 slips for their words at the pace of two or three words a week? How many notebooks would this require? Would they fit into their classroom? their house, their library, or their school?
What other ideas might one add to such a classroom exercise?
Forschung: Der Thesaurus linguae Latinae. Munich, Germany: Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3Eqt2QBKNs.
Kathleen Coleman, “The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae” Paideia Lectures 2022, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s98hTIOW1Ug.
Pinkerton, Byrd. “The Ultimate Latin Dictionary: After 122 Years, Still At Work On The Letter ‘N.’” NPR, May 14, 2016, sec. Parallels. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/05/14/476873307/the-ultimate-latin-dictionary-after-122-years-still-at-work-on-the-letter-n.
The Professor and the Madman. 35mm film, Biography, Drama, History. Voltage Pictures, Fábrica de Cine, Definition Films, 2019.
Smith, Chris. “Thesaurus Linguae Latinae: How the World’s Largest Latin Lexicon Is Brought to Life.” De Gruyter Conversations, July 5, 2021. https://blog.degruyter.com/thesaurus-linguae-latinae-how-the-worlds-largest-latin-lexicon-is-brought-to-life/.
Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. 1st ed. New York: Harper, 1998.