Dictating Dictionaries as a Teaching Method

Dictating an entire dictionary to students as a teaching method may seem odd from a modern point of view, but in early modern times it was common practice and served both as part of the teaching process and as means to provide a copy of the dictionary for the student’s personal use.

My research focusses on two manuscripts from the 15th century called the Engelhus-Glossar, Engelhus-Vokabular or vocabularius quadriidiomaticus. Not only do they transmit the same dictionary, but it can also be assumed from their almost identical colophons that they were both dictated by the same teacher and finished at exactly the same day in a school in Hannover.

This first blog entry is to give an example of a few methods and indicators that support the assumption that these two manuscripts were indeed written from dictation and not merely copied.

1. Dictation Errors

For the first example see the entry Acom(m)entaris (commenter):

Cod. Guelf. 720 Helmst., 5r
Cod. Guelf. 956 Helmst., 12r

Acom(m)entaris nomen indeclinabile id est scriptor vel notarius ponitur secundo regum octavo similiter ista et sunt indeclinabilia et communis generis

It seems unlikely that two students copying a written original would copy the same crossed out parts of text instead of omitting them in their own manuscripts. What’s more likely is that every now and then the baccalarius (Konrad Sprink) who dictated the dictionary to the students misread his own manuscript or made a dictation error, which the students then had to correct in their texts. In this case both scribes wrote „ista“, crossed it out and replaced it with „et“ (the abbreviation that looks like the number seven). Seeing as the first scribe, Ludolf Oldendorp, squeezed the „et“ in at the very end of the line and the second, Hermann von Hildesheim, wrote it above the crossed out „ista“ for lack of space, it can be assumed that the following word „sunt“ had already been dictated, when the error was noticed.

For the next example see the entry Afficere (to affect):

Cod. Guelf. 720 Helmst., 7v
Cod. Guelf. 956 Helmst., 12v

Afficere ab ad et facere equivocatur unde afficit inpo informat cupit punit[funit(!)] hec tria signat […]

Both scribes wrote „inpo“ and then crossed it out to replace it with „informat“. The faulty word breaks of mid-word, so it can be assumed that, in contrast to the first example, the mistake was noticed immediately. A possible explanation would be that in the teacher’s manuscript the „f“ in „informat“ looked too much like a „p“ and he misread it. Whereas Hermann started the whole word anew, it’s hard to tell if Ludolf decided to keep the partly crossed out „in“ and just added the rest of the word or didn’t realise that an „in“ was supposed to be a part of the corrected form.

2. Pressure of Time

A very important factor with dictation is time. Or rather lack thereof. Writing from dictation means there is only a limited amount of time to think about what one is writing, to contemplate unclear passages or to make changes to what’s already been written. In this respect gaps in an entry hint very strongly at a scribe’s intention to add something at a later date but then never getting around to actually doing it. Or, as with the following example, gaps that the scribe actually got round to filling, but where he miscalculated the amount of space he would need to fill in the missing words. See Apo (from, since, re-):

Cod. Guelf. 720 Helmst., 20v

Apo grece id est re vel retro latine inde apocalipsis id est revelacio de quo aco apocalipsare item apo grece id est a vel ab latine

Taking into consideration the visibly compressed script I assume that Ludolf followed the dictation up to „revelacio de quo aco“, then left a small gap to correct the long word he just started to misspell later and continued with „item apo“. When he then tried to fill in „apocalipsare“ he must have realised that he had left too little space and had to squeeze the letters in to make it fit before „item“. This need to add or correct parts at a later date can only be explained by dictation, because with copying a written text there is no need to keep on writing before a part is completed or corrected.

Differences between the two manuscripts in the entry Ciconia (stork) can also be attributed to there not being enough time to think during dictation. See:

Cod. Guelf. 720 Helmst., 56r
Cod. Guelf. 956 Helmst., 54v

Whereas Ludolf wrote a long article with explanation and German equivalent: „Ciconia avis est theutonice eyn edeber“, Hermann’s manuscript transmits a much shorter version: „Ciconia theutonice stork“. It can be assumed, that the scribes had to translate the German equivalent, that was being read out, into their own dialect if they didn’t know it or if it was uncommon. Which means that Hermann might not have wanted to use the word „edeber“ to describe this animal, because it was foreign to his dialect, and then took too long to think up the correct form in his dialect so that he didn’t manage to write down the entire article in time.

3. Spelling Variants

By far the most prominent differences between the two manuscripts are spelling mistakes or spelling variants. Many of them are awkward to explain by misreading but they are easily explained by mishearing and phonological idiosyncrasies. The most common are variants between letters representing the same or similar sounds such as d/t (capud/caput), f/ph (feon/pheon), c/s (scirpeus/cirpeus or serpens/cerpens), c/ch (abbacus/abbachus), m/mp (calumnia/calumpnia) or an initial-h (oralogium/horalogium). In the German words the variations are even more noticeable and most probably accounted for by the scribes’ different dialectal backgrounds: walvis/walfisch, scorsten/schorsteyn, opper/offer.

I think these examples support the assumption that the two manuscripts really were written from dictation.


4 thoughts on “Dictating Dictionaries as a Teaching Method

  1. Fascinating observations! Would be worthwhile comparing notes with Alderik Blom (next door in 47 Wellington Square) and his work on glossing. He includes scribal corrections among the tool box of glossing.


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