The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 30 Apr 2020

Geeky boasting about dictionaries

Yesterday Katara and I were talking about words for ‘song’. Where did ‘song’ come from? Obviously from German, because sing, song, sang, sung is maybe the perfect example of ablaut in Germanic languages. (In fact, I looked it up in Wikipedia just now and that's the example they actually used in the lede.)

But the German word I'm familiar with is Lied. So what happened there? Do they still have something like Song? I checked the Oxford English Dictionary but it was typically unhelpful. “It just says it's from Old German Sang, meaning ‘song’. To find out what happened, we'd need to look in the Oxford German Dictionary.”

Katara considered. “Is that really a thing?”

“I think so, except it's written in German, and obviously not published by Oxford.”

“What's it called?”

I paused and frowned, then said “Deutsches Wörterbuch.”

“Did you just happen to know that?”

“Well, I might be totally wrong, but yeah.” But I looked. Yeah, it's called Deutsches Wörterbuch:

The Deutsches Wörterbuch … is the largest and most comprehensive dictionary of the German language in existence. … The dictionary's historical linguistics approach … makes it to German what the Oxford English Dictionary is to English.

So, yes, I just happened to know that. Yay me!

Deutsches Wörterbuch was begun by Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm (yes, those Brothers Grimm) although the project was much too big to be finished in their lifetimes. Wilhelm did the letter ‘D’. Jakob lived longer, and was able to finish ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘E’. Wikipedia mentions the detail that he died “while working on the entry for ‘Frucht’ (fruit)”.

Wikipedia says “the work … proceeded very slowly”:

Hermann Wunderlich, Hildebrand's successor, only finished Gestüme to Gezwang after 20 years of work …

(This isn't as ridiculous as it seems; German has a lot of words that begin with ‘ge-’.)

The project came to an end in 2016, after 178 years of effort. The revision of the Grimms’ original work on A–F, planned since the 1950s, is complete, and there are no current plans to revise the other letters.

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