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Library Spotlight: 17th Century Oriental Language Lexicons

The Tower of Babel: the title page of John Buxtorf's lexicon
Posted By : Guest Blogger Wednesday 22nd April 2015

17th Century Oriental Language Lexicons

Written by Cathedral Verger Nathan Shipstone

The construction of the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11 purports to tell of how languages came into being; for God duly came down among the builders of the Tower to ‘confuse their language [and to] scatter them abroad…over the face of all the earth’. Four hundred years ago, this story was not considered just an allegory, but literal fact, as it was widely believed in the 17th century that Hebrew was the root language of all other languages in the world (and thus the language which the builders of the Tower of Babel would have spoken). This misguided belief had a direct consequence on Oriental language studies as Semitic languages closely related to Hebrew (like Syriac, Chaldee and Arabic) were often only studied in relation to how they increased the understanding of Hebrew. Learning non-Hebraic languages for their own sake, even though they had many native speakers and a great wealth of literature behind them, was very rare indeed. But the 17th century witnessed a flourishing of interest in Oriental languages, and many lexicons (dictionaries) were compiled by leading European linguists in order to assist fellow academics in their studies, in addition to the rather futile attempt to re-order and categorise Semitic languages to fall in line with Hebrew. Salisbury Cathedral’s library is fortunate to have in its possession several such lexicons from across the continent as, like today, links between academics in 17th century Europe crossed the geographical, cultural and (often volatile) political boundaries that lay between them – shown by each of these lexicons being printed in Latin, the lingua franca of academia at the time.

 

The lexicon of the Cambridge Professor of Hebrew, Herbert Thorndike, printed in 1635 (in Hebrew, Syriac, Rabbinic and Arabic) is rather primitive compared to the others in the library’s collection; the languages featured are all printed in Hebrew characters (advanced printing presses had yet to arrive in England at this time) and there is little in the way of cross-referencing to other sources beyond just the simple meaning of each word. Four years later in 1639, John Buxtorf, Hebrew Professor at the University of Basel (in what is now Switzerland) posthumously published a lexicon in Hebrew, Chaldee and Talmud-Rabbinic. The title page of Buxtorf’s laborious 2,700 page work has a print featuring the Tower of Babel – a direct reference to the misguided endeavour of these lexicons. Buxtorf’s son, also called John, succeeded his father as Hebrew Professor and published his own, much smaller, Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon in 1646. Around this time, the Pentaglott Lexicon was printed in Frankfurt (in what is now Germany) by Valentin Schindler, who was Hebrew Professor at the University of Wittenberg. Schindler, who died in 1604, used 5 languages (Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Talmud-Rabbinic and Arabic) in his lexicon – its fame being shown in having been reprinted four times after his death (the Cathedral library has the third edition, from 1653) and is prefaced by many notable scholars.

 

But all of these attempts at an authorised lexicon were eclipsed in 1669 by Edmund Castell's Heptaglott Lexicon, printed in the seven languages of Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Samaritan, Ethiopic, Arabic and Persian. Before becoming the Cambridge Professor of Arabic, Castell was the principle assistant of the London Polyglot Bible (another ground-breaking work of 17th century academia) and was inspired to create his own multi-lingual work once printing had begun. Using the same typesets, Castell went above and beyond previous lexicons by printing each of the seven languages in their own alphabets, and provided additional pages on phonetics and grammar. In fact, Castell’s desire to be wholly authoritative ended up negating the purpose of his lexicon, as many of the entries are pages long, bogged down by cross-references and heavy notations to contemporary works on linguistics. Castell laboured on his lexicon for 18 years, employing 14 assistants and spending a small fortune of £12,000. Though a similar amount of resources went into the Polyglot Bible, the appetite for a lexicon was virtually nonexistent upon its publication, and Castell spent the remainder of his life attempting (and failing) to sell his work in order to pay off his enormous debts. Seth Ward, having been an academic himself before he became Bishop of Salisbury in 1667, took pity on Castell and bought and bequeathed the copy of his lexicon that is now in the Cathedral library. Having very little use for such a work in his role as bishop, it could be seen as another act of charity for which Seth Ward was renowned for during his episcopacy. 

 

You can view a gallery of these lexicons here.