Recording the language of the nineteenth century

Thanks to the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in the late 1870s—the ‘new wonder of the day’, as Lewis Carroll (the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) enthusiastically described it—the nineteenth century remains the first in which we are able to hear the ways in which the spoken language was actually used. Recordings of the poet Alfred Tennyson and of the nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale, for example, still preserve intact the voices of the past.

A new approach to dictionary-making

The sense that dictionaries too should record the realities of language in use (rather than an idealized and normative version of words and meaning) was to be another important shift. In 1857, Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench delivered two lectures to the London Philological Society in which he stressed that the dictionary-maker was to be ‘an historian, not a critic’. In future the dictionary-maker should describe the objective facts of language rather than aiming to provide, as had often been the case in earlier works, a range of subjective opinions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ usage. Chenevix Trench redefined the ‘good’ dictionary in a similar way:

A Dictionary, then, according to that idea of it which seems to me alone capable of being logically maintained, is an inventory of the language… It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray.
Richard Chenevix Trench, On Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries (1857)

Trench’s lectures underpinned the making of the Oxford English Dictionary or, as its original title stated: A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Its first part, covering the words in ‘A’ to ‘Ant’, edited by James Murray, appeared in 1884 and by 1900 it had reached words beginning with ‘I’. As Murray noted, the ‘first aim of the Dictionary’ was to ‘exhibit the actual variety of usage’—and to act as a neutral witness to language as it had been used from 1150 to the present day.

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