According to James Gleick, in the late 1500’s, “Barely five million people on earth spoke English (a rough estimate; no one tried to count the population of England, Scotland or Ireland until 1801). Barely a million of those could write.” However, he also mentions that over the course of four centuries, the number of English speakers jumped to one billion people. This is partly due to the creation of the dictionary.
The creation of the dictionary is key in understanding the evolution of communication and shared experience over time. While the dictionary is a convenient place to look up words and definitions, it is also an irreplaceable part of English culture. This is because the dictionary documents the continuing development of our society and provides an important record of the evolution of the English language.
In chapter three of “The Information”, James Gleick tells the story of how Robert Cawdrey wrote his Table Alphabeticall, the first monolingual dictionary in English. Cawdrey knew that his typical reader, a book-buying Englishman, could live a lifetime without encountering a set of data ordered alphabetically because more sensible ways of ordering words came first. For instance, the Chinese arranged the two thousand entries in their dictionary by meaning, and Egyptians and Arabians had word lists organized on philosophical or educational principles. These were thought provoking, creative means of organization. However, Cawdrey wanted to create a list that was more mechanical, effective, and automatic.
Many years later, Thomas Blount wrote a dictionary containing more than eleven thousand words. His definitions were much more elaborate than Cawdrey’s, and he even provided information about the origins of each word. Sadly enough though, he didn’t pay homage to Cawdrey and his work. This is unfortunate, because despite the fact that it was never deemed a particularly useful work, if Cawdrey had not decided to compile two thousand words and list them in his Table Alphabeticall, it is possible that Blount wouldn’t have written his dictionary.
The first editors of the Oxford English Dictionary did mention Cawdrey in regards to their work. These editors called him ‘the original acorn’ from which their oak had grown. And boy, did their oak grow. After combing through several works of classic literature, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary managed to include nearly four hundred thousand words and phrases in ten volumes. This was an incredible feat, especially considering this dictionary was first published in 1928 – during a time when they lived without all of the helpful technology we have now.
Dictionaries continue to expand because language is always changing. No dictionary is ever really complete, and this includes the new, modernized versions of dictionaries that we access digitally. In 1989, with some help from a complicated software, Oxford editors managed to add five thousand new words to their popular reference work, both digitally and in print. Today the Oxford English Dictionary is still under alteration.
By informing readers on the history of the English dictionary, Gleick is insinuating that as dictionaries are written and expanded upon, humans only become more interested in words, and this is what leads to more English speaking individuals.
When the number of English speaking individuals increases, numerous connections can be formed within our society, which only results in an increase in communication and shared experiences. As we know, communication and shared experience are important when discussing the humanities.