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Nineteenth-Century Lexicography: Between Science and Fiction

(Image credit: Sarah Ogilvie)

Research Question

This is a large international collaborative project that investigates dictionaries and their makers in the nineteenth century, an era that produced great monolingual and multilingual dictionaries in locations around the world. It was a period in which lexicography took a radical turn in description over prescription, applying the scientific historical method for the first time, and taking new collaborative approaches to dictionary-making. Dictionaries were a vehicle for new ideas about the science of language, for nationalist passions, for religious fervor, for utopian imaginings, and for the dream of producing a material object that could contain the entire world, or at least an entire nation, in a bounded space. 

This project investigates dictionaries of Arabic, Chinese, English, Frisian, German, Japanese, Libras (Brazilian sign language), Manchu, Persian, Quebecois, Scots, Yiddish, and more.

Individually and as a group, we seek to do the following:

1.     To compare nineteenth-century dictionary-making in Europe, America, South Asia, and beyond in order to determine possible patterns within or across languages according to:

a.     political and nationalistic agendas;

b.     scientific and historical methods of data collection, analysis, and description;

c.     desire to standardize language, prescribe usage, revive old forms, or even to create new languages

d.     the dominance of prescriptive or descriptive modes of lexicography


2.     To investigate how and to what degree lexicographers were in dialogue with Continental philologists who were forging new scientific approaches to language and linguistic description.


3.     To investigate how lexicographers interacted with, and spurred the development of new modes of communication, technologies, and media.


4.     To investigate how radical and widespread the notion of collaboration was for lexicographers of the nineteenth-century.


5.     To determine whether there is a prototypical nineteenth-century lexicographer, regardless of language or region, or whether trends in methodology and practice are language-specific, region-specific, or lexicographer-specific. What might characterize someone working on dictionaries in this century in contrast with other periods? 

Research Team

Michael Adams (Indiana University at Bloomington)

Jorge Bidarra (State University of Western Parana, Brazil)

John Considine (Alberta)

Anne Dykstra (Fryske Academy)

Ed Finegan (USC)

Walt Hakala (SUNY)

Volker Harm (Gottingen Academy)

D. Brian Kim (Stanford)

Tania Aparecida Martins (State University of Western Parana, Brazil)

Sarah Ogilvie (Stanford)

Wim Remysen (Universite de Sherbrooke)

Susan Rennie (Glasgow)

Lindsay Rose Russell (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Gabriella Safran (Stanford)

Marten Soderblom Saarela (Max Planck Institute)

Peter Sokolowski (Merriam-Webster)

Nadine Vincent (Universite de Sherbrooke)

Ilya Vinitsky (Princeton)


The research team is meeting for a conference and workshop at Stanford in April 2018, and we gratefully acknowledge the following departments for their generous support and funding:

Stanford University Libraries

Dept of Slavic Languages and Literatures

Dean of Research

Dean of the Humanities and Sciences

Dept of Linguistics

Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies

Dept of Comparative Literature

Dept of Science, Technology, and Society

Dept of French and Italian

Dept of English


The results of this research will be published in a volume by Oxford University Press in 2019: Nineteenth-Century Lexicography: Between Science and Fiction edited by Sarah Ogilvie & Gabriella Safran.