on a scorching summer day two years
ago, his first day on the job as a drafting editor at the Dictionary of Old English, Stephen
Pelle was tackling heaven – or more accurately, was trying to define heofon, its Old
English equivalent. Hunched over a table,
he laboured like a medieval monk reviewing every citation of heofon in the corpus of
Old English texts. An assistant professor
at the University of Toronto’s Centre for
Medieval Studies – where he also earned
his PhD – Dr. Pelle already had years of experience proofing Old English
words. Yet his job that day was not so heavenly (or heofonlic, as it would
have been spelled 1,200 years ago).
The newly hired drafting editor had sorted scads of Post-it notes and
more than 4,000 slips of paper into precarious piles. Each slip contained
a different citation of heofon and each pile represented a different sense or
meaning of the word. Dr. Pelle’s goal was to create a hierarchy for these
meanings. He knew that defining every sense of heofon would be a challenge, but at that moment his most pressing concern was that someone
might fly past the table and inadvertently blow away the carefully ordered
slips. What had he gotten himself into?
The team behind the Dictionary of Old English, an ambitious, long-term
project based at the Centre for Medieval Studies, has set out to define every
known English word used between the years 600 and 1150. In a sense,
it’s a project that will catalogue the very DNA of our language. Now 46
years in, the project involves six staff and an army of students. Along the
way, generations of dedicated scholars have rediscovered medieval ways
of thinking and re-assessed the meaning of texts from the Middle Ages.
When finished, it will be more comprehensive than any dictionary of
English – more detailed than the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon dictionaries
of 1898 and 1921, and more exhaustive than the venerable 20-volume
Oxford English Dictionary. The new dictionary resurrects long-dead words
and unearths the ancestors of many words we still use today. It also includes the number of times a word appears in Old English texts – from
gospels and poetry to legal documents and royal records.
Eight volumes – the letters A to G, with a separate volume for the letter
AE – took about 2 5 years to complete. The Old English alphabet has 22 letters in total and the finished dictionary should have between 33,000 and
35,000 individual entries. Despite it being a work in progress, hundreds
of universities around the world have already subscribed to this digital,
online dictionary (no print version is envisioned).
The letter H was started about nine years ago. In that time, dictionary
staff have made several technological advances, including an upgraded
search engine, and added hyperlinks to other dictionaries and images
of related manuscripts. Letters I to Y (the last letter of the Old English
alphabet) may take a few years or a few decades. The timeline depends
on funding, which comes mainly from subscription sales, private donations and contributions from foundations in Canada and the United
States. Among the agencies that have provided long-term funding are
the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the U.S. National Endowment for
after eight weeks of work that first summer, Dr. Pelle summarized
heofon into 10 main definitions, which, along with citations, filled 70 single-spaced pages. The meanings fell into two broad categories: heofon as a part
of the sky and heofon as the abode of God. However, in some cases the
word also referred specifically to God’s power and, in one poem, was possibly miswritten for the word h- eof (lamentation). Scribes made mistakes in
those days, when most literature was hand-copied by monks.
“Heofon was actually a baptism by fire,” says Dr. Pelle. “I’d written a
few academic papers about what the Anglo-Saxons thought heofon and hell
looked like, concretely, but the word itself was hard, and H will probably
be the most difficult to define of all the letters.” After words beginning
with the letter S, Old English words beginning with H are the next most
numerous, at about 3,000. Words beginning with H are also some of the
most complex and most popular, including “she” (h-eo), “he” (h-e), “it” (hit)
and their plural forms.
The passion for antiquated words at U of T began with Angus Cameron,
a professor of medieval studies who founded the Dictionary of Old English
in 1970. The project’s first tasks were to count and categorize all surviving
Old English texts, then to input them into an electronic database. Staff
assistant Elaine Quanz spent nearly six years typing out Old English texts
using a special IBM Selectric font that could be scanned into a mainframe
computer. Work began on the dictionary entries themselves in 1982, while
the digitizing continued. Back then, the computers were as big as closets.
Dr. Pelle and colleague Robert Getz, who also has a PhD in medieval
studies from U of T, were both hired in 2014 as the dictionary’s interim
directors. (The project expects to appoint a new permanent director later this year.) They replaced David and Ian McDougall, twins who had
worked as the project’s drafting editors for 30 years. Drs. Pelle and Getz
each had held a research assistantship at the DOE as doctoral students
and had worked under former directors Toni Healey and Roy Liuzza.