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Review of  A Thesaurus of Old English

Reviewer: Miguel Ayerbe Linares
Book Title: A Thesaurus of Old English
Book Author: Lynne Grundy Christian J. Kay Jane Roberts
Publisher: Rodopi
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 12.2135

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Roberts, Jane, Christian Kay and Lynne Grundy (2000) A
Thesaurus of Old English. Rodopi, two volumes: volume 1
Introduction and Thesaurus, volume 2 Index. Hardback ISBN
90-420-1573-X, xxxvi+719pp, $130.00. Costerius New Series 131.

Reviewed by Miguel Ayerbe Linares, German Philology,
University of Seville (Spain)

This Thesaurus of Old English vocabulary consisting of two
volumes is a very useful tool for the study of the history
of English words especially of Old English words. The first
volume deals with the Thesaurus and the second one with the
list of Old English words contained in the Thesaurus. It
must be said that this list is more than a simple index
because it includes not only the list of words contained in
the Thesaurus but also the meaning to each one of them, so
that it could be considered to be a dictionary in some way.

In the Introduction (volume I, pages xv-xxxvi) the authors
explain how they have arranged their work. The Old English
vocabulary is presented in two ways: in the first one word-
senses are presented within ordered categories which users
may find summarized in the table of contents, for example
'existence', 'emotion', 'social interaction', 'religion',
'work', etc. Should a user not know the category to which
an individual word belongs, the alphabetical index (volume
II) helps him to find it. Each entry in the index contains
also a code that identifies the category or categories to
which the word-sense of an individual word belongs, for
example, 'caru' 08.01.03/, 'hafetian', 'milte' The
categories included in the Thesaurus are the following:

1. The Physical World
2. Life and Death
3. Matter and Measurement
4. Material Needs
5. Existence
6. Mental Faculties
7. Opinion
8. Emotion
9. Language and Communication
10. Possession
11. Action and Utility
12. Social Interaction
13. Peace and War
14. Law and Order
15. Property
16. Religion
17. Work
18. Leisure

Each one of these categories is also divided into
subcategories. An example of this:

1. The Physical World
01 Earth, world
01.01 Surface of the earth
01.02 Firmament
01.03 Air Surrounding earth, atmosphere

Going back to the Introduction, it contains several
sections. In them the sources and methods are described:

1)The source dictionaries (xvi-xviii) the authors describe
the sources the Thesaurus is based on, such as standard
Anglo-Saxon dictionaries. They explain also to what extent
they have followed them and the difficulties with spelling

2)Listing the meanings (xix-xx) here it is described how
the word-senses have been arranged included the work at
computer. A fully computer-based system for the Thesaurus
was created.

3)The four flags (xxi-xxxi) These flags are four symbols
(o, q, p, g) referring only to word forms. They are used to
provide useful information about word frequency: (o) for
very infrequent words; (q) for words of various origins
like 'the inventiveness of generations of ingenious
editors' (xxi) or words recorded in later English; (p) for
words that are to be found only in poetry and finally (g)
for word forms that appear generally in glossed texts.

4)The Classification (xxxi-xxxiii) according to the authors
of the Thesaurus the classification of words follows an
hierarchical structure: from the most general terms to the
most specific. That allows users to locate and to define a
word not only by its own heading but also by the headings
above and below it in the structure of a category.

5)Classifying the meanings (xxxiii-xxxvi) here the
Historical Thesaurus of English as starting point of the
Thesaurus is mentioned. The Historical Thesaurus of English
had a classification consisting of 26 categories which in
the Thesaurus of Old English had been reduced to 18 due to
operative reasons. This does not mean that the Thesaurus of
Old English excludes categories that appear in the
Historical Thesaurus of English but that the former has
brought some of them together.

6)Thesaurus (1-719)

7)Index (Volume II, 721-1562)

As I have pointed out above it is a very useful tool and I
would like to add that it is very operative too. This last
aspect is not redundant but very important for tools like a
Thesaurus since they are not dictionaries, in other words,
simple lists of words. A dictionary is used to find the
concrete meaning of a word but a Thesaurus deal with word-
senses that are conceptually arranged within categories. In
the former we have word forms that appear with their
meanings as independent elements, in the later however we
find word-senses that related to others within an
hierarchical structure. These are some aspects that the
authors of the Thesaurus point out in the Introductions and
in later sections, and I find it very correct for there are
people who use a Thesaurus as it were a dictionary.

Talking about the ideal user for the Thesaurus the authors
mean in a general point of view that it is a tool intended
for native speakers of a language since it does not provide
meanings. In this way it is the native speakers who know
the meaning of the words contained in the Thesaurus and
therefore they can work with it better than non-native
speakers. I personally agree with that but only in part. It
is true that in case of the English language being a native
speaker can help to manage with Old English vocabulary but
we must also held in mind that there are qualitative
differences in vocabulary between Old English and
Contemporary English, so that a native speaker of
Contemporary English can find some difficulties working
with Old English vocabulary too.

Apart from that there are other aspects of this Thesaurus
to be pointed out.

First of all I find very positive for operative reasons to
edit the Thesaurus with a second volume consisting of an
alphabetical index of the words and phrases appearing in
the it. I do not say that in the sense of using it as a
dictionary. Sometimes it can be difficult to find to know
on one hand the category or categories a word-sense belongs
to; on the other hand it can be that an user does not find
a concrete word-sense (although it really appears in the
Thesaurus) because the authors and the users follow
different criteria in classifying some meanings. In this
way the alphabetical index is very useful because it
provides not only the meaning -as I have already said
above- but also the exact location of the word-sense within
the Thesaurus through an identification code, for example:

'georne' (on page 1019) Swift movement of
time; Care, attention, observation; Clear to the understanding, plain; Will, wish, pleasure;
Earnestness; Depth of feeling, zeal; Happiness, well-being, prosperity; 11.02.02
Diligence; Care, mindfulness, attention.

But not only the alphabetical index but also the Thesaurus
itself refers to other categories or headings when the
same word-sense can be found in more than one category or
heading. An example can be seen on page 274:

'to weaken, abate': gemieltan (See Diminution; Reduce)

For this reason I consider the index in a separate volume
to be very useful as auxiliary tool, although -it must be
said too- it makes the Thesaurus as a whole more expensive.

Another important aspect is the use of the so called flags,
mentioned above. In the Introduction the authors say that
taking the decision of using or not using them was not
easy. From my humble point of view the fact of flagging the
entries was very positive because they allow users to know
about the word's frequency or in what kind of text a word
may come up. I mean that in favour of those users who do
not know the Old English vocabulary as specialists can do.

Finally I think that the Thesaurus achieves the goal of
providing insights -some of them new, of course- into the
vocabulary of Old English in its different fields like ways
of life, relationships, tools, religion, etc. In this way I
consider that this Thesaurus is to be used not only for
research purposes but also for knowing the Old English
world. With that I do not want omit the fact that it is a
very useful tool for further research of Old English
vocabulary, especially by specialists.

The reviewer works at the Department of German Philology of
the University of Seville (Spain). He has studied German
Philology in Seville, Cologne and Munich. His research
interests include the historical development of Germanic
languages and historical mutual influences between Romance
and Germanic languages especially in their oldest stages.