DICTIONARIES AND VOCABULARY





We often think of language-learning as an exposure to the formal Grammar, the inflections, declensions and conjugations. But in fact the real besetting problem comes just after the forms are learned. It is VOCABULARY, which is a never ending problem as you go from easy authors to hard ones, constantly finding new words, some common and many rare, even unique. Plying the paper dictionary has for centuries been the language student's bane, but now with electronic tools at hand, there is hope.

The Humanist's Latin Dictionary, by William Harris, Prof Em. of Classics, Middlebury College, is now at last published in electronic format for both the Mac and PC. It includes every word used in every literary text, some 15,000 words in all, newly and clearly defined, and is available from Centaur Systems Ltd.

With this dictionary any word can be found in two seconds, hence the end of tiring dictionary searching. With fast dictionary searching you can soon get down to a more fluent reading speed, which is the aim of what we call a "reading knowledge" of a foreign language.

Information about the Electronic Latin Dictionary discussed in this paper is available from the website of from CentaurSystems




A word about vocabulary, the sum total of words which Latin authors actually used, seems in order here. Latin has a relatively small vocabulary, by the time you have learned a thousand words you can read a great many original Latin texts, by the time you possess three thousand words you can read widely. But there will always be a few words, which are found even in commonly read texts, that are quite rare, and many of these are so rare that you will in all probability never see them again. These are called "hapax legomena", the Greek term meaning "one-time read". But these are the exception rather than the rule.

On the other hand, Latin words often occur with a variety of sub-meanings, which is the Roman's way of compensating for a restricted word-supply. Latin with its small basic vocabulary is not hard to learn, but since there are many sub-meanings you will often have to stop and guess, or look in your dictionary for the appropriate term.

Dictionary searching has always been a chore. Using the Computerized Latin Dictionary will simplify one of the worst problems of learning Latin, which is "having to look up every single word". This computerized Lexicon contains every word which is used in a literary text, even if it occurs only once in the whole course of Latin literature. It lists over l5000 words with new and clear definitions in the English that American students normally use, and it provides, in three or four seconds, the answer for each word you enter. (Compare this with an average dictionary search, taking 2-3 minutes.) With this aid you should be able to learn Latin far faster than anyone has ever learned it, and by reading more Latin, you will progress faster toward a true reading knowledge. There is no advantage to looking up words in a printed dictionary; boredom and fatigue will often make you forget the item which you have just looked up.

But remember, a dictionary can't help you with grammar and the organization of sentences (syntax), it is only useful after you have become familiar with the basics of Latin grammar. Reading word-by-word is not enough. The Review Grammar section of this supplement should serve as quick reference AFTER you have done a full survey of what Latin grammar is about.

There is a time to use a larger dictionary which cites examples of use. The Oxford Latin Dictionary (l980) is the best authority for detailed use of Latin words, and for special scholarly purposes it is invaluable. On the other hand for beginning and intermediate students it is far too detailed, the crammed pages of citations are not useful if one is looking for one or two basic meanings to get you the gist of a text.

The available smaller dictionaries have a variety of faults. First they generally represent British usage, often of the turn of the last century, which is largely out of date and linguistically confusing to American students. Then there are errors of listings, and omissions of many words which are found in commonly read authors.. There is no need at this time to hide words which have a sexual or "obscene" content, since all words in current use are now to be found in new editions of the English dictionaries. There have certainly been great changes in taste since l975 about what one can say, in both books and TV. Is it annoying or perhaps funny to find circular definitions which send the reader back and forth in the dictionary without telling what the word means? Is it necessary for the O.L.D. to still define one word as "A type of sexual pervert", intentionally leaving the reader in the dark?

Latin authors were far freer in their use of "obscenities" than we were until recently. It has been said that generations of English schoolboys got their sex education out of Martial and Juvenal, while the Loeb Library edition of Martial published in the l930's translated the questionable epigrams into Italian for some obscure reason. Frankness of vocabulary was natural for the elegant Catullus, the polished Horace, and the clever Martial, they never imagined that books could be "Banned in Boston" for a "dirty" word or two. Corollary:

There are no dirty words, only dirty minds. Considering what passes these days for normal in Junior High circles, not to mention late evening TV, there soon may not seem to be anything terribly dirty in vocabulary after all.

Dirty words and dirty thoughs have existed from the start of humankind.In the real world, where thousands perish by famine, disease, murder and high-tech warfare, the real ugliness of civilization is to be found in what is done, not in terms of the nice or uigly words people use. It is the sticks and stones of the world which do real harm, by contrast (as the school rhyme says) the words will never hurt you.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris