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Review of  A Catalogue of Dictionaries, Vocabularies, Grammars, and Alphabets

Reviewer: Rolf Kemmler
Book Title: A Catalogue of Dictionaries, Vocabularies, Grammars, and Alphabets
Book Author: William Marsden
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.659

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The present work is a facsimile reproduction of the bibliographical catalogue the Irish scholar William Marsden originally published in 1796. Occupying six unnumbered pages as well as 154 numbered pages, the work can be divided in paratexts and two parts.

The first paratext is the author's preface. In this text, Marsden offers the following explanation for the choice of his works' contents: ''The following Catalogue is intended to comprise the Titles of the Dictionaries, Vocabularies, Grammars and Alphabets of all Languages, excepting Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, together with the modern derivatives from the Latin and Gothic; viz. French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and English, and of all dialects, as distinguished from the principal Languages to which they belong; whether separately published, or found in Accounts of Voyages and Travels, or other Works. [...] The Russian, in respect of its importance and the improvement it has experienced under its present august Patroness, should also have been excepted; but the progress of Slavonian literature in other Countries being as yet inconsiderable, the opportunity was taken of pointing out those Works by which a knowledge of it may be facilitated'' (p. III).

While Marsden appears to be generally interested in all kinds of metalinguistic texts, he prefers to omit works dedicated to the classical languages (Hebrew, Greek and Latin) as well as the Romance and German languages and their diasystematic variations (with the exception of Russian works, given that they are apt to be less known in the West). As the author explains, this selection is due to the multiplicity of publications pertaining to both the classical and the modern languages, to which must be added a considerable number of secondary titles like chapters in travel literature, journal articles, etc.

The title page of the original edition indicates that Marsden's work is separated ''in two parts'' (p. I), although this is omitted in the recent edition's title. The first part contains an ''Alphabetic Catalogue of Authors'' (called ''Catalogue of Authors'' on p. 1) and occupies pages 1 through 82, to which needs to be added the ''Appendix'' on pages 153-154. Within pages 1-74 and 153-154, the author lists a total of 822 authors and 1,113 works. As the catalogue also includes several pages of ''Anonymous Works. In the Order of their Dates'' (pp. 75-82), the absolute total of mentioned publications is 1,254. Amongst these, 520 ''Books in the possession of the Editor'' (or 41.47% of all titles) are marked with an asterisk to show that this part of the repertoire belonged to the author. 424 works (33.81%) are marked with a cross as a means of identifying all of the ''Books which he has not had an opportunity of seeing''. These are obviously books of whose existence the author obtained knowledge through his readings of relevant publications. The third class of books is those of works that belong to private or public libraries, and are identified by abbreviations, like the Bibliotheca Bodleiana (B.B.), British Museum (B.M.), His Majesty's Library (K.L), etc. (310 items or 24.72%).

The second part, ''Chronological catalogue of works in each class of language,'' occupies pages 83-152. After a short three-page outlook on the ''Classification of languages'' (pp. 85-87), this part offers a total of 1,212 works, amongst which 498 belong to the Author's personal library, 411 have not been seen by him and 303 belong to the aforementioned libraries. Without any pretence of establishing a language typology as known in modern language science, Marsden chronologically lists the entries in this part in the following 33 sections (orthography and punctuation are those of the author's 1796 original edition):

American (pp. 89-93)
Arabic (pp. 93-98)
Armenian (p. 99)
Cantabrian or Basque (p. 100)
Canting. Rothwelsch, i.e. ''thieves slang'' (p. 100)
Celtic (pp. 101-104)
Chinese. Tunkinese. Japonese (pp. 104-105)
Coptic or Egyptian (pp. 105-106)
English. Ancient, Provincial and Etymological. Scottish (pp. 106-108)
Epirotic or Albanian (p. 108)
Ethiopic (pp. 108-110)
Finnic. Hungarian. Lapponic. Esthonian (pp. 110-112)
Georgian or Iberian (p. 112)
Greek, Modern, Etymologial, and Dialects (p. 113)
New Holland, i.e. Australia (p. 114)
Hottentot (p. 114)
Latin Barbarous and Modern Dialects – i.e. Latin and Romance languages (pp. 114-118)
Malayan, Javan, Philippine, Madagascar (pp. 118-120)
Mauritanian. Breber (p. 121)
Negro, Caffer (pp. 121-122)
Otaïtean or South-Sea (p. 122)
Persian. Kurdic. Zend. Palmyrene (pp. 123-124)
Polyglot. Universal (pp. 124-127)
Punic. Phenician (pp. 127-128)
Sanskrit, and Dialects thence derived (pp. 128-129)
Scandinavian. Moeso-Gothic (pp. 129-132)
Siamese. Burman. Peguan. (p. 132)
Slavonian Dialects (pp. 133-138)
Syriac. Samaritan. Aramaean (pp. 139-143)
Tamul. Malabar. Telinga. Kanarin. Singalese (pp. 144-145)
Tatarian Dialects (pp. 145-146)
Teutonic – Germanic languages, like German, English, etc. (pp. 146-151)
Turkish (pp. 151-152)

Notwithstanding the fact that the number of entries slightly diverges between the two parts, both have in common that Marsden usually offers the author's name (when known), the title, place and date of publication, as well as the book's format. In the first part, he additionally offers an insight into separate volumes, chapters or even pages with noteworthy information.


Given that in the late 18th century linguistic studies still were mostly devoid of the modern sense of an occupation within the modern rules of scientific endeavour, the lack of existence of a historiographic discipline that understands itself as such is evident. There are, however, a few landmarks of linguistic thought that put in evidence that some authors may indeed have had some historiographic conscience. Foremost is the French scholar François Thurot, whose ''Discours Préliminaire'' (Harris & Thurot 1796: ix-cxix) to the French translation “Hermès” of James Harris' 1771 English work “Hermes” is commonly held to be one of the earliest essays belonging to the historiography of linguistics. This is the same year in which the volume under review appeared.

Nowadays, there exists a number of bibliographies dedicated to various aspects of different languages and metalinguistic texts. In this sense, the value of Marsden's repertoire of ca. 1,200 bibliographic items involving a great number of languages on five continents might be viewed as somewhat limited by modern scholars. The work is, however, an important monument of the beginnings of the historiography of linguistics itself, placing Marsden as one of the British precursors of the historiography of linguistics. Indeed, his focus on languages that were not part of the classical syllabus of European philological studies differentiates his work from the more classically-oriented contemporary catalogues of dictionaries that had been published by the mid-18th century philologists such as Johann Heumann von Teutschenbrunn (1747) and Jacques-Bernard Durey de Noinville (1758).

Concerning the impact of Marsden's work, Cop (1991: 3173) mentions without referring to any source that there were only ''60 copies'' that had been ''privately printed'', i.e. published directly by the author. Indeed, in his memoirs, published posthumously by his wife Elizabeth Marsden, the author explains both the quantity of printed copies and the book's purpose: ''You ask me why I do not print more than sixty copies? It is because I mean only to give them away, and that number is sufficient'' (Marsden, 1838: 88). This statement by the author himself shows that the claim that had been perpetuated since Ebert's (1830: col. 51) bibliographical encyclopedia that 150 copies were printed is not correct.

Due to the small number of copies that were produced for private circulation, it would seem that the work’s impact might have been strongly limited. However, the contrary seems to be the case, as there exist contemporary reviews that document the author's will to promote his work notwithstanding its non-commercial nature. A somewhat short review was published in the September 1797 edition of the London journal ''The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle'' (GM, 1797: 770-771), being followed by a similarly short appraisal in the July-December 1797 edition of the ''British Critic'' (BC 1798: 208).

But the impact of Marsden's catalogue was not limited to the British journals which reviewed current publications. Even before the aforementioned London journals published their reviews, at least two anonymous reviews appeared in early 1797 German review journals. These contributions were published in the 12 January 1797 edition of the ''Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen'' (GAgS, 1797: 52-56) and in the 20 February 1797 edition of the ''Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung'' (ALZ, 1797: cols. 453-156). Contrary to the succinct English reviews, both of these quite elaborate critical reviews provide not only an insight into Marsden's work, but offer a critical discussion of its merits and shortcomings. Both of these quite well-informed reviews by two different authors end with the opinion that Marsden's repertoire will be of service for future similar but more elaborate compilations (like the ones that were published a decade later by the German philologists Johann Christoph Adelung and Johann Severin Vater). The German expatriate Johann Christian Hüttner (1766-1847) offers an explanation for the appearance of these reviews by stating in a letter dated 3 December 1796 that Marsden sent three copies of the book to Germany, namely one to Göttingen, one to Berlin and one to the scientist and linguist at Jena University, Prof. Christian Wilhelm Büttner (1716-1801), who most probably would have been responsible for the ALZ (1797) review (cf. Hüttner 1797: 153).

The existence of these (and probably other yet unknown) reviews clearly demonstrates that Marsden's compilation of bibliographical information was generally well (even if critically) received by fellow philologists of the time. Even so, the work must have been very scarce prior to its recent digitization and the present publication by Cambridge University Press. The same seems to apply to the follow-up compilation ''Bibliotheca marsdeniana philologica et orientalis'' (1827) which Marsden published 31 years later. This volume was reedited by Cambridge University Press in the same facsimile collection in August 2012.

Given that around 3,000 items from Marsden's private library were donated by the author to King's College in London in 1835 (UKIRA 2001), both of his bibliographical catalogues not only have historical value for the history of linguistics but may also serve (at least partially) as catalogues of still existing library holdings.


ALZ (1797) = Marsden, W.: A catalogue of dictionaries, vocabularies, grammars and alphabets. London 1796. Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung 57 (20. Februar 1797), cols. 453-456.

BC (1798) = Art. 52. A Catalogue of Dictionaries, Vocabularies, Grammars, and Alphabets. In Two Parts. Part 1. Alphabetical Catalogue of Authors. II. Chronological Catalogue of Works in each class of Language. By William Marsden, F. R. S. &c. 4to. 154 pp. London. 1796. The British Critic X (July-December, 1797), 208.

Cop, Margaret. 1991. 335. Bibliography of Dictionary Bibliographies. In Hausmann, Franz Josef, Reichmann, Oskar, Wiegand, Herbert Ernst, Zgusta, Ladislav (eds.), Wörterbücher, Dictionaries, Dictionnaires: An International Encyclopedia of Lexicography, Encyclopédie internationale der Lexicographie, Ein internationales Handbuch zur Lexikographie. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter (Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science, Manuels de linguistique et des sciences de communication, 5.3), 3169-3177.

Ebert, Friedrich Adolf. 1830. Allgemeines Bibliographisches Lexikon: Zweiter Band, M-Z. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus.

GAgS (1797) = A Catalogue of Dictionaries, Vocabularies, Grammars, and Alphabets in two Parts. Part I. alphabetical catalogue of authors. II. Chronological catalogue of Works in each class of Language. By William Marsden, F. R. S. 1796. 154 Seiten in ar. Quart. Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen 6 (12. Januar 1797), 52-56.

GM (1797) = 184. A Catalogue of Dictionaries, Vocabularies, Grammars, and Alphabets. In Two Parts. Part I. Alphabetical Catalogue of Authors. II. Chronological Catalogue of Works in each class of Language. By William Marsden, F. R. S. &c. 4to. The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle LXVII/2 (September, 1797), 770-771.

Harris, James & Thurot, François. 1796. Hermès ou recherches philosophiques sur la gramaire universelle. Ouvrage traduit de l’anglois, de Jacques Harris, avec des remarques et des additions par François Thurot. Paris: De l’imprimerie de la république.

Heumann von Teutschenbrunn, Johann. 1747. Iohannis Hevmanni ivr. professoris altorfini opvscvla qvibvs varia ivris germanici itemque historica et philologica argvmenta explicantvr. Norimbergae: Sumptibus Ioannis Georgii Lochner.

Hüttner, Johann Christoph. 1797. London, d. 3. December. Der Neue Teutsche Merkur 1 (Januar 1797), 151-155.

Marsden, William. 1796. A Catalogue of Dictionaries, Vocabularies, Grammars, and Alphabets: In two parts, Part. I. Alphabetic catalogue of authors, II. Chronological catalogue of works in each class of language. London: Printed 1796.

Marsden, William. 1827. Bibliotheca marsdeniana philologica et orientalis: A Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts Collected with a View to the General Comparison of Languages, and to the Study of Oriental Literature. London: Printed by J. L. Cox.

Marsden, William. 1838. A Brief Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Marsden: Written by Himself. London: Printed by J. L. Cox and Sons.

Marsden, William. 2012. Bibliotheca marsdeniana philologica et orientalis: A Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts Collected with a View to the General Comparison of Languages, and to the Study of Oriental Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Noinville, Jacques-Bernard Durey de. 1758. Table alphabétique des dictionnaires en toutes sortes de langues et sur toutes sortes de Sciences et d'Arts. Dans le même vol: Dissertation sur les bibliothèques. Paris: Chez Hug. Chaubert; Herissant.

UKIRA. 2001. UKIRA: UK Information Resources on Asia, Marsden Collection. (11 January 2013).
Rolf Kemmler is an auxiliary researcher in the field of Portuguese linguistic historiography with the Centro de Estudos em Letras (CEL), University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD, Vila Real, Portugal). He received his doctorate in Romance Philology from Bremen University (Germany) in 2005, with a thesis entitled 'A Academia Orthográfica Portugueza na Lisboa do Século das Luzes: Vida, obras e atividades de João Pinheiro Freire da Cunha (1738-1811)', published in 2007. His research interests focus on the history of Portuguese orthography and history of Portuguese and Latin-Portuguese grammar as well as historiography of linguistics in general.

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