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College of Continuing Education News

Little Orphan English

U professor and LearningLife instructor strives to give lost and lonely English words a home

Dictionarypage.jpg"When I die," says Anatoly Liberman, "I would like to have a picture of a heifer inscribed upon my tombstone."

A somewhat peculiar utterance for anyone, but an even stranger one for someone who isn't a farmer, rancher, veterinarian, or in some other way associated with agrarian or bovine-related pursuits.

Liberman is, in fact, a linguist. More specifically (and correctly), he is a philologist--one who studies language in written historical sources; a pursuit that combines literary studies, history, and linguistics. He is also a professor of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch at the University of Minnesota (where he has worked since he emigrated from his native Russia in 1975). And, one day, almost 25 years ago, because of a cow (albeit indirectly), he launched himself headfirst into the massive task of creating an etymological dictionary for the English language, and a bibliography to accompany it.

"It was a chance occasion--I was reading a German book, and there was the word hette (goat). This word, it looked a bit like the word Heiðrún [ed. note: ð is as in th in English this], which is the name of a goat in Scandinavian mythology. It's also a common name in German (spelled Heidrun)--but not in English. At any rate, the origin of the name is not well known. And Heiðrún, the word itself, the origin is not well known.

"And I said to myself, 'well, now that's interesting.' And I thought of a word, in English, heifer, which is similar to those two in pronunciation--at least in its historic sense (now it rhymes with "deafer" as opposed to something more like "wafer), and spelling. I wondered if perhaps in the origin of the English heifer, I might find out about the beginnings of Heiðrún."

Liberman turned to The Oxford English Dictionary, to Walter Skeat's 1910 version of An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, and to several other reference books--and found nothing but a few conflicting and widely disparate accounts on the origins of heifer. "The word is old--at least from the 10th century, but its origin is hardly known. And as I continued to look, I realized that there are no bibliographies of English where you can open it up, and say 'heifer' and it will give you a list of dictionaries and articles where mentions of the origins of the word can be found.

"And what irritated me was that there was no literature in any of these etymological dictionaries (e.g. Skeat's) that said where these opinions on the origins had come from. There are dictionaries for other languages--dead languages like Sanskrit and Latin, and living languages, Icelandic, and Russian, and Polish, and the Romance languages--and you can see the word, and then the editor's opinions or ideas, and then half a page of references as to where it came from. But for English, nothing. No references. If you want to know more about English, you have no place to start."

So, frustrated at English's role as an etymological orphan, Liberman did what any self-respecting language connoisseur would do (or, maybe not): he set out to write one himself. The massive undertaking is made up of the multi-volume history of more than 1,000 common English words, and the bibliography--a tome featuring approximately 15,000 English words, "common and rare, recent and archaic, stylistically neutral and slangy." Those words were culled from 21,000 articles, notes, and reviews in more than 20 languages.

"For the dictionary, I am sticking to a relatively few words, common words that when you look them up they say 'origin unknown' or 'origin uncertain. Those, and words that have no cognates outside of English. Words like 'boy' and 'girl'. Very common, but of disputed origin--and they only appear in English. For the bibliography, though...that is anything and everything. All words are grist for the mill, so to speak. I avoid words that are not for English etymologists--for example 'emperor', which is obviously Latin; or 'idea' which is Greek. Those belong to Latin and Greek etymologists. But otherwise, the more I read, the more I include.

"I am," he sums up, "quite omnivorous when it comes to the bibliography, but rather choosy when it comes to inclusion in the dictionary."

It is a more-than-a-lifework scale of project, one that began when Liberman was already in his early 50s. "Ah, you will often read in prefaces something to the effect of 'If I had known the time and effort this would have required, I wouldn't have started the project,'" Liberman says with a smile. "But I had no illusions whatsoever about the magnitude of the endeavor. If anything, I am more surprised at how much ground I've covered.

"With the help of student workers, and volunteers, and some grants here and there, we have been opening up bibliographies and journals and books from all over the world, year after year, and copying articles and entering data."

It has been a rewarding process for Liberman, and one that provides not only linguistic knowledge, but a broader picture of humanity as a whole. "Knowing the history of language, of language change, you know the history of civilization, the history of human thought. You learn about everything from politics to music to flowers... everything in the man-made world is reflected in language."

(Editor's note: This also makes him immensely skilled at Jeopardy and Trivia Pursuit. A man who knows what the nest of a grey squirrel is called is not one to be trifled with.)

No matter how rewarding the work, however, it has not been without its challenges. The funding for this type of work is difficult to come by, says Liberman, as "many organizations are reluctant to offer any--they look for short-term projects, with immediate results. And, well, when you more or less tell them that your work will take up the rest of your life... it's not something they want to sign on to. They say 'oh, nothing will ever come of that; it is a waste of our money.' But some, some have said 'this is exactly the kind of project the world needs! We have been waiting for years for this!' And they have helped. And the University has always had trust in the project, and they know that dictionaries are not written overnight."

Still, he adds, with a hint of a smile, "perhaps someone, a millionaire, would like to fund my dream of The Center for English Etymology? Where I could have a post-doc, and perhaps one or two graduate students, and an administrative assistant...

"But it is all right the way it is," he says. "We get along this way. Every year we add several hundred new titles to the database. About a hundred people have worked on this project over the last two-plus decades; 50 of them volunteers. I have three working with me right now, including one fellow who has been helping for 20 years. He's in his 80s now, and has opened probably tens of thousands of pages in that time."

Pointing to a database entry on a species of small fish, Liberman shows that if you look hard enough, and long enough, you can find, and then document, reference material for words like "goby." There is satisfaction in that, even if there is perhaps not fame, fortune, and glory. And that sense of satisfaction and pride is obvious when Liberman discusses his work. "There is no fame in scholarship... [but] even if I die tomorrow...this will stay, and the database will stay. And if someone wants to write, say, an article on the name of a fish, on 'goby'...well, there will be this with an entry. It may only be two references in this case, but that is more than would have been collected before."

Not that he plans to shuffle off his mortal coil anytime soon, of course: "Ah, a point going for me," he concludes (also with some satisfaction), "is that many of the great lexicographers--Wedgwood, Skeat, etc.--they are all exceptionally long-lived. I suppose you might have to be, in this line of work."

Want to help?
If you are interested in volunteering for the etymological dictionary and bibliography project, contact Professor Liberman at aliber@umn.edu.

Learn more
Join Professor Liberman on March 17, as he leads the LearningLife Saturday morning seminar, The Future of English. The two-hour course will be a mix of discussion and lecture, and will tackle questions such as "Is there such a thing as 'good' or 'bad' English?" "What does it mean when there are more ESL speakers than there are native English speakers?" "How will the digital age and texting affect the language? How will the decrease in average literacy levels affect it?"

Complete course details and registration information can be found on the LearningLife website.

Photo credit for dictionary image at top: Some rights reserved by Muffet

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