University View: Andrew Hawke

Posted on 7 June 2012

Without language civilisations could not exist and most great civilisations have recognised this by studying their own languages. This is the view taken by Andrew Hawke, Editor of the University of Wales Dictionary of the Welsh Language, in today’s ‘University View’ column of the Western Mail:

It was the Chinese, over two millennia ago, who were the first to compile dictionaries. The first Welsh–English dictionary was published by William Salesbury (who also translated the New Testament into Welsh) in 1547.

It was James Murray’s New English Dictionary, later to be known as the Oxford English Dictionary or the OED, that introduced the idea of the historical dictionary, a dictionary based on a collection of quotations from all periods of a language, arranged to show the development of that language over the centuries. This was also one of the first dictionaries that used a team of workers and volunteers to collaborate on a huge project stretching over many decades.

Even before it was completed, the OED led to a call in Wales for a similar project to record the history of the Welsh lexicon. This call was eventually taken up by the University of Wales which established a small team in 1921 in the newly-opened National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Over the next 80 years, with some volunteer help, that small team assembled several million quotations from all periods of the language, and published nearly 4,000 pages containing over 7,000,000 words of text under the title Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru.

Once the work was finished, the team returned to the beginning of the alphabet and began re-editing the work to include the new words and meanings which had accumulated in the intervening half-century. Wales is privileged to have such a dictionary of its national language, a minority language – most small languages have to rely on the valiant efforts of one or two dedicated individuals who could never hope to produce a work on such a scale.

You might think that such a work would be a dry and dusty academic record of the language with little practical use, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. Although the dictionary describes the language based on the available evidence of the various meanings of words, the staff strive to provide the correct spelling for each word based on the accepted rules. This makes it important for other dictionaries, writers, teachers and translators who rely on it for guidance. The dictionary staff also assist public bodies with technical terminology, the correct spelling of place-names and guidance on the precise meanings of words used to draft legislation in Welsh – legislation in which both Welsh and English will from now on have equal validity.

The University of Wales has funded the work (together with a significant contribution from public sources such as HEFCW and its predecessors) as part of its long-standing commitment to research in the higher education sector and to the language and culture of Wales, and is determined that this will continue. A concise version of the dictionary has been available online for many years, but to permit many more people to benefit from using it, the University is funding the development of a full online version of the dictionary which will be freely available to all. The team also hopes to produce an ‘app’ of the full dictionary for tablets and mobile phones.

Those who instigated the project just after the end of the First World War would be amazed at where their ambition has led.


Andrew Hawke is the Managing Editor of Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, the University of Wales Dictionary of the Welsh Language.

To view the article on the Western Mail website, please click here


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