THE LATIN ELECTRONIC DICTIONARY PROJECT


As a longtime teacher of the Classics, I have always felt that the way the classical languages are taught is as outmoded now as the 20th century ends as they were ill-conceived at the beginning of this age. During these past eighty years great advances have been made in both theoretical Linguistics, and in applications of linguistic theory and new teaching methods to the languages. But little of this shows up in the way Latin is still taught. Major stumbling blocks seem to have been:

a) The use of Translation while perusing a Latin text. This is clearly not the way to get a workable reading knowledge, as one would reach easily in French or Spanish. Whether one reads Latin aloud or silently is a matter of mere academic concern, since it is the English translation which emerges as the message.

b) Grammar is still taught by the rules, and in segmented pieces, which is why I put together on this site "The Intelligent Person's Guide to The Latin Language", as a place where the whole spectrum of Latin grammar can be seen in a related sequence.

c) But Vocabulary is still perhaps the Latin student's worst problem, since the words used in the texts we read are not generally words you can learn by seeing them again and again, as in modern language teaching. I have heard Latinists say that the modern languages have it much easier since they teach a spoken tongue, but any language teacher will tell you that he can teach German or French far faster as a written language. It is the spoken language and problems with unfamiliar pronunciation which takes so much time.

The Latin student, after getting the basics of grammar in some sort of order, will start off with tough, maturely written texts, and for several years it will be a matter of constant thumbing of the dictionary. I have timed students searching for a word in a middle-size dictionary, from the start till the word is found and read, the average time is a minute, but soon becomes two minutes as the eyes tire. The operation will often have to recirculate a minute later, because the dullness of the search makes the reader forget what he just read. Dictionary searching is tiring, annoying, and above all, it is time-consuming.

By l984 it was clear to me that we were going to have small computers on most desks and good numbers of them in every school and college. I decided to construct a new Latin dictionary and get it into electronic form as soon as possible. I found many mistakes in the dictionaries students have been using since the start of this century, some were omissions, some sheer errors, obsolete British usage which would be confusing to a modern American and possibly a student in the UK as well. The obvious meanings of obscene words were avoided as if contagious. So for me, taking the job in hand, the first stage was collection of materials, which proceeded in this fashion:

I set up a large table in my study on which I had on display all the dictionaries in current use, from the small MacMillan to the grand Oxford OLD, with the TLL not far away in the college library. I was not yet computer competent, didn't even own a computer and found the college computer experts unsure what I wanted to do. So I laid out words on large sheets of foolscap, with a Latin word in the center column, and around it scribbled notes on meaning, sub-meanings, special uses and estimated frequency of use in literary Latin. When I finished a chunk of this work, I rolled up the numbered sheets and took them to a series of student assistants who were paid generously by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for a period of several years, in fact until this part of the project was electronically entered. We had several disasters, one portion which supposedly could be entered from Digital VT 100 terminals directly into the college VAX, were incompatible and had to be redone. Another chunk of work which was entered, was judged to be a student project and erased at the end of the term. But Sloan stayed firmly with us and we got the whole thing entered.

We were thinking of this residing on a mainframe with some pre-tested search available, so it was a surprise when I was told to first make up a program for searching, by myself. I bought my first computer and soon found that writing a program is not the way computer people get things done. We stayed with the VAX and edited the whole 15,000 item file there, until someone suggested using Hypercard as a fast and effective front-end. Fortunately David Herren was programming in Hypercard at the college, he started me off with a working stack, and from then on it was a different ballgame.

I found Hypercard a great new world for a beginner, I could make up complex programs which I could understand and develop myself. After funneling the data into fields in a 3 x 6 Hypercard "file card", I began to devise specialized functions, such as a stem-search, a way to mark cards for review, to print out lists of cards just looked up, a way to list five levels of word-frequency, and a reverse English-to-Latin search. With some streamlining of the program, I found I could retrieve a word in just a few seconds even on a Mac Plus, so I saw the future direction with the new desktop machines clearly at last.

When Rob Latousek of CentaurSystems decided to publish this dictionary, he edited it as a good Latinist carefully, and then constructed a PC version to reach a much wider market. It has been available for Mac and PC for several years now, and is finding use in a wide range of schools and colleges. Latin texts can now be entered in a separate window, and searched in the Humanist's Latin Dictionary ---- all on screen at the same time.

At last the student is free from the incessant labor of thumbing his dictionary. If a word is entered in inflected form, the stem can be searched. The English definitions are clear, compact and they cover the range of basic meanings in a short paragraph. There is even on each card a pop-up window for entering personal notes on the word. Behind each 3 x 6 inch card lie some 15,000 words, covering every literary Latin text, even down to hapaxes, with no hesitation about scatology.

The aim of this computerized Latin Dictionary is clear, to enable students to read faster and more efficiently, with the hope that a forward looking teacher will use this tool to move students into a true "Reading Knowledge of Latin". This electronic dictionary is an important tool for this aim, but it will take more than this to get students really"reading Latin", as they would read French or German.

Some teachers of a suspicious nature feel they cannot tell if the student really understands the Latin ---- unless he or she translates. This is dark-ages teaching in terms of the Modern Languages, and although Latin has different problems from many modern languages, it is after all a language and must be taught as such. It need not be used in conversation, or to explain in Latin its own grammatical niceties. But it can be taught as a "written language", much as written technical German or scientific Russian are currently taught. But since the material is literary and can be part of a historical or social studies project, it has much aid from the high quality of the writing itself.

Latin texts were written for educated, adult audiences, they are often not easy to understand for this reason, as well as for the changes in the culture and the times. This is all the more cogent a reason for making the wide range of difficult vocabulary available in the most convenient form, which is the rationale behind the Humanist's Latin Dictionary.

With vocabulary searching reduced from minutes to seconds, students should soon be able to read intelligently several pages between classes. Now the teacher can be called on in a different role, as linguistic expert on what the grammar really means, pointing out difficulties which arise from the difference between English and Latin, as well as cultural differences which student could not reasonably sense. And if the teacher adds to this a regular acoustic reading of the Latin, which is the only viable way to fix words and phrases in a language student's mind, and gets students to read Latin as Latin, following the Latin words without an English interface ---- then Latin can be learned as a real language, not a set of test drills. And Latin can be interesting both as a language qua language, and also as vehicle for a remarkable culture which lasted somewhat longer that the timespan between William the Conqueror and Bill Clinton.

I sometimes wondered when at work late with a pile of dictionaries before me, searching my mind for the right word to express a certain nuance of thought, if it was really worth the time I was spending. In fact it was somewhat more than an hour each evening after dinner for a couple of years, just to compile the materials. And the work with the Mac took even longer because there was much to learn. At such times as I faltered, I remembered asking my teacher Joshua Whatmough years ago, as I saw him taking a ponderous tome of the CIL Vol. VIII home for the weekend work on the Dialects of Ancient Gaul, how he managed so much hard labor. His answer echoed for me decades later:

"If I don't do it, it won't get done."




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