A Chronology of the Medieval Irish Lexicon

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Arts, English and Languages


Gaelic has been spoken and written in Ireland and Scotland continuously for the last 1500 years. While Latin dominated the written record in the rest of Europe, the Irish and Scots adapted their language to writing at an early date and cultivated what is now one of the oldest and richest vernacular literatures in the world. Vast tracts on native law were compiled as early as the 7th century and subsequent centuries saw the cultivation of religious writing, poetry and a body of narrative tales which is globally unique.

The vocabulary in any language changes over time, most notably with the introduction of new words, often borrowed from other languages, and the loss of words which, for one reason or another, are no longer deemed useful. The Gaelic vocabulary fell under the influence of other languages throughout the medieval period, most notably of Latin, Norse, French and English. However, a large proportion of changes are internal to the language and most commonly affect the meaning of existing words. Yes an accurate understanding of changes in meaning is essential if we are to properly interpret the language at any time in the past and to avoid anachronistic readings of texts. This project will address the issue of changes in the vocabulary and the meaning of words by tackling a problem at the heart of the most authoritative historical dictionary of early Irish, A Dictionary of the Irish Language based mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials.

The Dictionary was published in separate volumes between 1913 and 1976 and now exists in an updated digital format (www.dil.ie). It is based on the Gaelic language as recorded between the seventh and seventeenth centuries, and each entry contains multiple citations from original texts illustrating the meaning of the word. However, the original compilers of the Dictionary made no effort to provide dates for the citations and so the age of words and their meaning is often unclear. In this project, we will provide dates for all the texts that were used in the compilation of the dictionary. Subsequently, when users access a particular entry, they will also be shown a visualisation of the chronological range of each word and see how the sense has developed over time. This will enable scholars to identify the senses of words most appropriate to any text on which they are working or to trace the changes in meaning over time. It will also be a major contribution to future studies of the history of the Gaelic language. For the first time, researchers will be able to chart the development of the vocabulary including the coining of new words, the obsolescence of certain words, and changes of meaning of words over centuries. Its usefulness will extend beyond the study of language, however. Archaeologists and historians will be able to track changes of sense through time and map these onto changes in the archaeological and historical records. For example, the Dictionary contains numerous words relating to clothing and a future archaeologist would be able to map changes in the sense of words onto what can be gathered from archaeological and historical collections.

To write the history of a language we need, first of all, to understand the changes in its vocabulary and particularly what people meant at different times by the words that they used. This project will provide a unique and powerful tool for scholars to investigate these questions and work towards a history of the language which is comprehensive and has historical depth.


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