Part of a pioneering project in digital humanities, Christopher Kuipers’ (English Department) electronic glossary of Old English synonyms, part of the Intercontinental Dictionary Series, is now available online. Originally conceived in 1975 by the linguist Mary Ritchie Key, IDS was founded in 1984 at the University of California at Irvine.
The purpose of IDS is to enable comparative study of languages around the globe through structured databases of keywords in those languages. Towards such efforts IDS supplies free digital tools and downloads to enable a wide range of comparative studies of linguistic classification, semantic change, and cultural migration. Currently, drawing on the work of hundreds of contributors, the IDS databases span over 300 distinct languages and dialects from more than 30 global language families, ranging from Austronesian to Zamucoan, a small language family from South America.
The genius of IDS is a hyperlinked database of essential cultural keywords. Modeled on the word lists first gathered in Carl Darling Buck’s A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages (U of Chicago P, 1949), IDS features an expanded set of over 1,300 synonyms for keywords in cultural categories ranging from the physical world, kinship, and time, to emotions, political relations, and religion. Buck's original lists have been broadened in IDS to embrace a more modern and global language corpus, with terms like adobe, banyan, divorce, outrigger, poncho, reef, sugarcane, and we (inclusive).
Old English was included in his 1949 dictionary, but both the expanded synonym lists of IDS and subsequent linguistic work in Anglo-Saxon studies necessitated a comprehensive revision of Buck's Old English keywords. Because of the aesthetic needs of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, which encouraged the frequent use of synonyms, the manuscript records of Old English preserve (especially considering their otherwise modest size) an unusually wide array of closely-related vocabulary terms. Thanks to the tides of language change (not to mention the French tsunami of the Norman invasion), much of this Old English vocabulary passed out of currency in living English many centuries ago. Reflecting this early linguistic diversity, Kuipers’ IDS glossary of Old English includes nearly 2,500 words. His work is based on evidence from all extant sources of Old English, in particular newer, digitally created corpus-linguistics resources that were not available at the time of Buck's original compilation.
For instance, there are at least six different Old English words recorded for Modern English river, stream, brook. The latter two, stream and brook, stem directly from the Old English words strēam and brōc, respectively (river came into English from Anglo-Norman French, from Latin ripa). Four other widely-attested Old English terms, however, were subsequently lost: ēa, burna, rıθ (rith), and sīc. These may yet appear, like fossils still eroding in the riverbed of language, in certain place names or regional British dialects, such as burn referring to “a small stream” in Scotland and northern England. (Another common British synonym for stream, beck, derives from a related yet distinct linguistic tributary, namely the Scandinavian or Northern Germanic language inflow of “Danelaw” settlement in northern and eastern England.)
IDS uniquely unites such specialist microanalysis of individual languages like Old English with broader opportunities for areal, taxonomic, diachronic, and synchronic studies of language. The ultimate vision of IDS is thus to promote global cooperation and understanding. Old English is fortunate to have had well over four centuries of diligent scholarship devoted to it, but very few other languages around the world, whether living and dead, have been so lucky. Consequently, in the face of troubling trends towards the seemingly irreversible endangerment and death of less-spoken languages, IDS stands to preserve and promulgate vital knowledge about the diversity of human cultures.
Kuipers, Christopher M. “Old English Dictionary.” The Intercontinental Dictionary Series, founding editor Mary Rittchie Key, HyperCard, 1998, 2,485 entries. General editor Bernard Comrie, data entry by Mackayla Infante-Wong, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, 2015.