Evolution of Dictionaries: From the Ancient world to Art

Evolution of Dictionaries: From the Ancient world to Art

Origins of Dictionaries: Unveiling Ancient Beginnings

Did you know that dictionaries have been a part of human history for over 4,000 years? The earliest semblances of dictionaries weren't exactly what we imagine today. In ancient Mesopotamia, around 2300 BCE, bilingual glossaries were crafted on tablets to bridge the language gap between Sumerian and Akkadian. These primitive translations served as the predecessors to modern dictionaries, hinting at the need to understand different languages even in ancient times.

cylinder of Antiochus with translation passages

The Erya: A Multifaceted Masterpiece

Fast-forward to the third century BCE in China, where the Erya emerged as a groundbreaking work that combined dictionary, glossary, thesaurus, and encyclopedic elements. Often attributed to Confucius, the Erya showcased over 2,000 entries, covering subjects from philosophy to flora and fauna. Its thematic organization marked a departure from the alphabetical arrangement, highlighting how dictionaries were tailored to specific subjects rather than comprehensive language references.

Erya Yi - Chinese Dictionary

From Bilingual to Monolingual: A Shift in Focus

As civilizations evolved, dictionaries began to shift from bilingual glossaries to monolingual works that focused on specific languages. The Sanas Cormaic, an Irish dictionary from the 9th century CE, contained explanations for over 1,400 words, emphasizing the need for specialized terminology references. Similarly, Mahmud Kashgari's "Divan-u Lügat'it Türk" aimed to teach non-Turkic Muslims the Turkic language, showcasing how dictionaries were used as educational tools.

The English Renaissance and Dictionaries

With the dawn of the Renaissance, languages like English, French, and Latin coexisted in England. Dictionaries emerged as vital tools to bridge these linguistic gaps. Robert Cawdrey's "A Table Alphabeticall" in 1604 was the first step towards a purely English alphabetical dictionary. However, it was Samuel Johnson's monumental work, "A Dictionary of the English Language," in 1755 that revolutionized English lexicography, setting the stage for modern dictionaries.

Dr. Johnson's Triumph and Beyond

Samuel Johnson's dictionary, a comprehensive tome containing over 42,000 words with references to their usage, established a new standard for English reference works. Johnson's approach laid the foundation for modern dictionaries that encompass both words and their contextual meanings. Despite his achievement, it wasn't until the Oxford English Dictionary's completion in 1928 that Johnson's work was truly succeeded, reflecting how dictionaries evolved over time.

A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755. Huntington Library, San Marino

Enter the Digital Age: Transformative Technologies

The 20th century brought a paradigm shift as technology revolutionized the dictionary landscape. Electronic dictionaries emerged as databases, eliminating space constraints and allowing for enhanced search functions. These digital formats made dictionaries more accessible and user-friendly, redefining the way we interact with language references.

Dictionaries for Natural Language Processing: A New Frontier

With the rise of technology, dictionaries took on new roles, particularly in natural language processing. These dictionaries are tailored for machines, enabling accurate and efficient language translation. These databases, unlike traditional dictionaries, are intricate networks of information designed to support machine learning algorithms and enhance language comprehension.

Diverse Forms, Varied Purposes: Defining Dictionaries

From stone tablets to digital networks, dictionaries have come a long way. They evolved from bilingual glossaries to specialized thematic works, and eventually to comprehensive reference tools that encompassed the entirety of languages. As languages evolved and new words emerged, dictionaries remained a work in progress, capturing the fluidity of language. While dictionaries aim to be objective and factual, they ultimately reflect the choices and interpretations of humans.

arabic calligraphy art

Language as art

Throughout history there has been a strong link between language and art, from the pictoral hieroglyphs representing pictures of living beings or inanimate objects,  retaining a close connection to the fine arts through to elaborate Kanji or Arabic calligraphy becoming artworks in their own right. 

In ancient Egyptian art, pictographic language and storytelling pictures are intermingled, highlighting that for them, language is a form of art and a natural progression from pictorial storytelling.

In Islamic art, The development of Islamic calligraphy is strongly tied to the Qur'an; chapters and excerpts from the Qur'an are a common and almost universal text upon which Islamic calligraphy is based. Although artistic depictions of people and animals are not explicitly forbidden by the Qur'an, pictures have traditionally been limited in Islamic books in order to avoid idolatry.

Heiroglyphic art and language intermingled

In medieval times illuminated manuscripts show text decorated with flourishes such as borders and miniature illustrations often to the point of being more artwork than text. After printing became ubiquitous from the 15th century onward, the production of illuminated manuscripts began to decline alongside calligraphy. It was revived in the 19th century with the Arts & Crafts movement and has since returned to popularity.

The evolution of language

The very essence of language and communication has been captured in these many reference works, shaping our understanding of words and their meanings.

Johnson himself recognised that language is impossible to fix, due to its constantly changing nature. The digitisation of dictionaries has allowed for an increase in recording the ever changing popular terms and slang alongside common usage changes. 

In urban dictionaries and slag terms, we document the play and fun of language evolution, alongside the use of modern language such as emoji's and hashtags.

bestie definition print

At Lelloliving, we celebrate the art of language through our collection of typography prints, definition prints and t-shirts that reflect the dynamic nature of words and their interpretations and modern uses. These fun definitions, give alternate meanings to words, or even allow you to create your own!


Twins alternative definitionhusband alternative definition

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