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Indiana State library adds 15th century dictionary to collection

Posted by isulib on January 30, 2015

Indiana State University’s Cunningham Memorial Library has added another rare dictionary to its esteemed Cordell Collection.

One of the first known examples of a German-to-Latin dictionary, “Vocabularius incipiens teutonicum ante latinum” was published in 1495 by Johann Gruninger. The small quarto still bears its original binding and has few blemishes.

“The book itself is wonderful. It’s the only copy of this book in the United States,” said Cinda May, chair of the special collections department at the library.

The 382-page dictionary is unpaginated, but it was hand-numbered in ink, presumably by an owner. The incunable dictionary — a term referring to one printed before 1501 in Europe — is bound with a pigskin cover by the Augustinians at the Ulm monastery of St. Michaels. Its “pastedowns are as white as newly fallen snow,” with manuscript ink and rubrication “so pristine as if they were created in our own time,” said David Vancil, curator emeritus of the Cordell Collection.

Vancil saw “Vocabularius” for sale in a bookseller’s catalog and contacted May, who had overlooked the entry. May happened to have money in her acquisitions budget and made the purchase — an especially important one, considering the book’s rarity, May said.

“It surprised David, because he was joking,” she said.

The Cordell Collection of Dictionaries, Word Books and Philological Texts is open to the public and provides a unique opportunity for people to see artifacts from the first days of printing.

The bookseller, Bruce McKitterick, said he was pleased “Vocabularius” found a home in the Cordell Collection, as McKitterick’s father assisted Warren Cordell in its creation, May said. “Vocabularius” features a Gothic typeface but is considered to be visually plainer than many German books of the era — a quality that aids readability.

“This work is worthy of study by historians of the development of book production, including the creation of inks, paper and the printing itself — all coming a short 40 years after Gutenberg’s 1455 Bible,” Vancil said.

While the author of “Vocabularius” is anonymous, experts presume it was written by a teacher, likely affiliated with the church.

“Of course, one outcome of such a book would have been to help create dominant usages and spellings, so it’s likely that this dictionary exerted influence in both establishing dominant spellings for German words and in developing subsequent dictionaries, not only in German but in other languages,” Vancil said.

This specimen is also unique regarding the organization of words, as bilingual dictionaries of this time normally would have listed the Latin or Greek term first.

“With respect to the development of the English language and English lexicography, early dictionaries in Latin, Greek and continental languages can offer insight into borrowings, early definitions and usages and even modal shifts in vocabulary use and word meanings in English itself,” Vancil said. “Who knows if English bilingual Latin-to-English dictionaries, which developed somewhat later than this dictionary, might have been influenced in some way by this dictionary.”

The tome also provides some social context for the people of that era. For example, one unexpected definition is for pancakes fried in blood.

“This tidbit opens a small window on a food eaten by Germans at the time,” Vancil said. “Thus, word books can open a window, which otherwise might remain closed into the habits and interests of societies of bygone.”

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Photos: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Miscellaneous/Cordell-Collection-2014/i-9cRBDqP/0/XL/01_20_15_dictionary-5824-XL.jpg — “Vocabularius incipiens teutonicum ante latinum,” a German-to-Latin dictionary published in 1495, is the only one of its kind in the United States. (Tony Campbell/Indiana State University Photography Services)

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Miscellaneous/Cordell-Collection-2014/i-23KPPw8/0/XL/01_20_15_dictionary-5832-XL.jpg — “Vocabularius incipiens teutonicum ante latinum,” a German-to-Latin dictionary published in 1495, is the latest addition to Cunningham Memorial Library’s Cordell Collection of dictionaries. (Tony Campbell/Indiana State University Photography Services)

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Media-Miscellaneous/Cordell-Collection-2014/i-scc58kd/0/XL/01_20_15_dictionary-5853-XL.jpg — “Vocabularius incipiens teutonicum ante latinum,” a German-to-Latin dictionary published in 1495, is the latest addition to Cunningham Memorial Library’s Cordell Collection of dictionaries. (Tony Campbell/Indiana State University Photography Services)

Contact: Cinda May, special collections chair at Indiana State University’s Cunningham Memorial Library, 812-237-2534 or Cinda.May@indstate.edu

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or libby.roerig@indstate.edu

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