Lexicons & Dictionaries

A.P. David — former student and tutor at St. John's College, Annapolis

St. John's has done admirably well in creating tutorials to study music, mathematics, and laboratory science. Scott Buchanan thought that in the modern world, the liberal arts were best practised in the laboratory. In lab, scholarly reverence for the achievements and techniques of modern science, combined with a good deal of local intuition, have produced a stimulating programme at the college.

Mr. Buchanan was wrong, however. In my view the great work in the liberal arts of the twentieth century was in the description of languages. This was not work that drew attention to itself. It did not win Nobel prizes; it did not earn named University chairs; often it was done at the expense of the linguists who performed it. But there is more data there for a science of man than in any possible human genome.

Two of the books that underclassmen deal with the most at St. John's are Mollin and Williamson's An Introduction to Ancient Greek and Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon. Both of these works are products of the modern tradition in linguistics. Yet at no point in their time here are students pointed toward the foundations and the practices of this tradition. Hence our students have no idea, are not even prompted to wonder, it seems to me, how such books are made. (The depth of the problem with the culture at St. John's is indicated by the directive from the Instruction Committee that tutors should refer their corrective "points of grammar" to some Webster's or other-as though questions of grammar had answers that merely needed to be 'looked up'. Has the Instruction Committee reviewed and critiqued this Webster's? Is it prescriptive or descriptive? How are we to know how to refer students to it without knowing which kind of grammar it is? Is not a descriptive grammar of English something our students should be encouraged to think about, even to formulate, in the course of their encounters with Greek and French? Do we not profess that grammar is one of the liberal arts, rather than a set of rules?) At no other place in the programme would a student be allowed to take a measurement off an instrument and treat it significantly, if he could not give an account of how the instrument worked. This is what is encouraged of them when they translate at St. John's using a grammar and a lexicon.

There is very little that should be changed about the freshman language tutorial. The Greek manual is an excellent work of its kind. I was personally advantaged by its prominent treatment of aspect. My teachers in Greek were among the best philologists of their generation, and each of them had a different range over the phenomena. But each of them continually emphasised aspect in close readings of passages, poetry or prose, and I was thankful for having been introduced to Greek through Mollin & Williamson and having been the beneficiary of their unusual emphases. But it must come into consciousness somehow at this college that grammars do not grow on trees, or fall from the sky, or come regulated by a governmental agency. The notion of 'aspect,' and the notion that there is aspect in Greek, are both of them modern and recent ideas. The application to Greek came from a comparison with aspect in the Russian verb. Mollin & Williamson's celebrated chapter on the verb appears to owe an uncredited debt to Roman Jakobson's analysis of the Russian verb (I have not read through this particular work of Jakobson, but I take my point on good authority). 'Aspect' plays no part in ancient Greek descriptive grammars. What our students (and our students alone in the world) call 'past progressive,' the Ancients called ateles, 'imperfect'. Mollin's and Williamson's is a modern work based on modern linguistic premisses upon which we at the College offer no critical perspective whatsoever.

There has been a Saussurean revolution in the modern practice of the liberal arts, while St. John's has as good as stuck its head in the sand. This revolution has been as far-reaching in the humanities and social sciences as the Cartesian was in mathematics and physics. Scarcely a dissertation is written in the departments of the humanities and social sciences that does not reflect this revolution—the birth of linguistics out of philology, that led to new templates and forms of argument in all the human sciences—in form or content, directly or indirectly. (Exceptions perhaps arise in those self-isolated areas of philosophy and political theory that are our usual watering holes on tutor-gathering expeditions. The New Program may itself be considered a kind of brave and hostile reaction to some of the distant offshoots of what I am calling a Saussurean revolution. But why react to the misguidance of his students, when Gorgias himself is to hand?)

When I came to teaching junior language, I had an attack of conscience about this matter. Here we were about to slog through another grammar, doing exercises and learning rules. One colleague simply said that "you have to be a French professor," drill them and quiz them until they memorise. I was determined to have a language tutorial rather than a French class. I asked my students if they knew how grammars and dictionaries were made. I asked them if they knew the difference between a dictionary and a lexicon. In two years of language study none of them had thought to ask such questions. What I decided to do was to read Saussure's Course in General Linguistics with them. This book is short, seminal, short, brilliant, great, and short. It can be read straight in three weeks, a segment like the logic segment in sophomore language. I preferred to take a day, every week or two, in amongst the exercises from Palmeri and Milligan, to read passages of ten to twenty pages. The results were an unequivocal success. (I am currently doing this in senior language, where Saussure may be even better suited.) I am not one in any case who approaches the study of grammar as a means to something else, but the classes on Saussure were a highlight of the year, and had a constant galvanising effect on all our discussions, including on French exercises. (Saussure happily gives a number of illustrations from the history of French.) It is not the case that simply reading Saussure can make one a grammarian or a lexicographer, or even a critic of the work of grammarians and lexicographers. Facility in the modern liberal arts of language is too hard, and takes too long, to be achieved within the confines of a bachelor's education; this is not the case with the modern liberal arts of measurement. But to read Saussure is to open a door. All the hostile camps now claim him. To read him is to go to the roots of things, in the best tradition of the St. John's curriculum; while the fruits, sweet or sour, ripe or poison, can be tried elsewhere.

In Saussure my students found the first author in the language programme to ask: what is language? And he gives an answer, a very modern answer. Upper-classmen who are feeling their oats in confronting modern thinkers in seminar do not take Saussure's answer either reverently or at face value. It has surprised me how challenged students feel by Saussure's discussions, and how imaginatively they respond to the challenges. Some of his distinctions ought to become staples of the St. John's scene, just as they have become fundamental in the practice of the modern liberal arts of language: langue and parole, for instance; or synchronic versus diachronic accounts. The latter distinction in particular has a pointed application to this community. I would wager that there is not a tutor who has passed through our campus that has not at some time or other resorted to etymology in the course of an exposition or argument. What is one doing when one turns to etymology to help elucidate the truth or the meaning of a statement? What, for example, is the etymology of 'etymology'? Do English speakers who use this word know its origin and history? Is it important to know its etymology, or anything else beyond a user's intent, when we interpret a speaker or a writer? Saussure is by no means an answer man on this question, but he is the right author to help one think the matter through, at least when it comes to the linguistic aspect of etymology. To etymologise is to make the diachronic reality come to bear on the synchronic reality. I mean to call out not just my present colleagues, but Jacob Klein and Martin Heidegger, when I question an unexamined or even mystical use of etymology.

In a freshman language archon meeting I once pointed out that in the early 1980s, Carnegie-Mellon University used to supply its incoming freshman with a computer. For similar reasons, I said, we ought to supply our freshmen with the complete Liddell & Scott. (The cost would hardly be noticed if it were added—or subtracted!—from the current tuition.) What we have in ancient Greek is not a language but a liturgy; a finite and tiny sampling of the work of mostly extraordinary authors. The only rational approach to reading such a collection is through lexicography: collecting all the words and all their instances, drawing on ancient dictionaries, using comparative reconstruction, and inducing the distinct terms of usage from context. At every stage of the process there is need for a modern lexicographer to use his judgement. This is why in reversing the process—trying to read an ancient text by means of such a lexicon—one also has constantly to use one's judgement. The art of using the full lexicon therefore requires that one learn how to read an entry, but it also requires that one read both widely and deeply across the liturgy. This is to practise the art of the Hellenist. It is impossible that our students or even our tutors acquire such an art in their time here, but it would be good if they were given what Mr. Klein called the conditions for the possibility.

Sophocles' usage, for example, is so peculiar that very often one finds the passage one is reading cited and glossed in its own numbered entry in the lexicon's article. These are moments of discovery if one is reading Sophocles with the full lexicon. The lexicographer's scaffolding falls away, and one comes face to face with a poet and with the mystery of his meaning. (What, for example, does Sophocles mean by praxis? This question was posed by a friend of mine who is a professional Hegelian, who observed that it had to mean something like 'fate' at certain points in the Oedipus at Colonus. The mere fact that such a translation could be forced on this word seems to me to lead rather far into the thought of both Sophocles and Hegel.) These Sophoclean glosses happen so often in Liddell & Scott that it is fair to say that their full lexicon in fact amounts to a commentary on the whole of Sophocles; and it must therefore escape our students' attention, however hard they pay it, that in the lexicographers' own opinion Sophocles' usage often falls outside the general strands that have been culled in the abridged articles. Hence the notion that Sophocles can be read with anything but the full compendium of L & S is not defensible. Thus it is a great misfortune that the Instruction Committee has decided to distribute the so-called 'intermediate' lexicon to our students. I doubt that any of my colleagues who had had a background in music or laboratory science have ever had to deal with such a misuse of instruments in the practice of the programme.

It might be argued that if it is impossible that our students become experienced enough in Greek to read Sophocles with a full lexicon, perhaps they should simply use the Intermediate lexicon as a kind of dictionary. The problem here is that it is a poor dictionary. It is long years now, but it seemed to me that the shortest abridgement was produced with a good deal more judgement than the Intermediate. The Intermediate has the imprimatur of Alice's father, but I doubt that he had much to do with it. Consider an example or two. As part of a recent assignment, a freshman looked up legw in the Intermediate lexicon. He found three separate entries, as though there were three different words—roughly, 'gather,' 'count,' and 'say'. He wondered whether there was not a connection between the senses of these apparently homonymous words. Lo and behold, in the complete lexicon, there are only two entries: one not included in the Intermediate, a posited form connected to lekhos, 'bed'; the other, a single, multi-column entry—one word whose usage by authors led the lexicographers to divide their account under three Roman headings. The presentation in the true lexicon is in fact an invitation to see connections between the different uses of what is in fact a single word. This so-called Intermediate lexicon is therefore in no sense an abridgement: it represents a radically different, and to my mind inferior, judgement on the part of the lexicographer. This example is of course a word with great import for our whole programme, and hence I am not to be thought to be exercising esoteric fears or a merely professional snit.

Here is another biggie. The first italicised entry for psukhe in the Intermediate lexicon is 'breath'. This notion that psukhe = 'breath' was also perpetuated until recently in M & W's vocabulary lists. I have seen this meaning made much of, on the authority of these sources, in several student papers over my years here, including in a prize-winning senior essay. But if one looks in the full lexicon there is no mention of breath anywhere, in an article of more than two columns' length. (An instance from Simonides is cited without comment.) At the end of the article the authors actually go to the trouble of arguing that the derivation from psukhw, 'blow, breathe,' is unlikely because there is no support in Homer. There is an association of psuche with blood in Homer, but none whatsoever with breath (pnoie, thumos). The entry in the Intermediate lexicon is therefore both bizarre and wrong. Tutors and students who have developed their judgement about Greek in concert with this lexicon are, with good reason, no longer to be trusted, and ought not to trust themselves. (It is in any case a fool who hath said that he 'knows Greek'.) I would much prefer that vocabulary lists be prepared for Sophocles—there may be some available in editions—rather than that the myth of an 'intermediate' lexicon be perpetuated in our language tutorial.

Far the best solution, however, is that we institute Homer in sophomore language. The urgency here is not as definitive and critical as the need to introduce Saussure, but I find the arguments very compelling. Homer is simply easier, better, and deeper than anything else. He is a gift from the gods dropped in the lap of our limitations, and it is absurd that he does not have the place at this college that Euclid, Bach, Apollonius, Newton, Baudelaire & Co. enjoy. There are forty-eight books to choose from. There exists an excellent, complete and manageable lexicon in English. Sophocles himself would scorn those who attempted to read him while ignorant of Homer. Homer is a world that gave birth to worlds. Aeschylus and Sophocles thrive off a resonance that must be lost to our students. It is a world that one can enter with a small lexicon and a smaller grammar. His music can be scanned with far greater ease than anything in Sophocles; and yet the music is no less complex, and has no match for beauty. There is an ignorant Hegelianism that sees epic, lyric and drama as a world-historical triadic development. The truth is that Sophocles learned how to craft a dramatic speech in Homer's school. The rhapsodes thrived in the age of drama, thrived creatively even in the Christian era. (The Liturgy of the Word is rhapsody.) What is distinctive about Sophoclean drama is not in fact the drama; it is the modus of choral lyric. If the sophomores were to read Homer in Greek opposite the Bible and Virgil, if they were to read his similes opposite the analogiai of geometry, and opposite the astronomical retrogressions of the planet-gods in Ptolemy, if they were to scan the original mousike, the dance of the Muses, while studying melody and rhythm in music, I feel a cohesion might come to the beginning of sophomore year, the lack of which nowadays sometimes drives a student to despair.