This Latin Thesaurus Has Been in Progress Since 1894

Scholars are still working on the letter “N”

Thesaurus Linguae Latinae
A set of the volumes published by 2010 of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae by N.P. Holmes, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

In a library in Munich, Germany, about 20 researchers are currently working on a project that others started 122 years ago. They are creating the most comprehensive dictionary of the Latin language, as it was used from the earliest inscriptions dating back to the 6th century B.C. to about 200 A.D., when its life as a spoken tongue began to decline.

"If a word is just on a toilet in Pompeii in graffiti, you'll find it with us," researcher and editor Marijke Ottink tells Byrd Pinkerton for NPR.

The effort includes combing through written works in Latin, cataloguing each word and the passage it appears in on a slip of paper, and then compiling a detailed entry for each word, with its meaning and inflections gleaned from the paper slips. The German government set scholars on this mission back in 1894, and the first generation of Latin experts filled many boxes with many thousands of paper slips: references gleaned from poetry, speeches, legal texts, references about cooking, gravestones, street signs and more. Each word has at least one box full of references; The word res, meaning "thing," has 16.

The Thesaurus Linguae Latinaewhen complete, will have a volume for each letter in the alphabet. Another distinguished reference work, the Encyclopædia Britannica, notes that work on the Thesaurus has been interrupted by two world wars and "complicated by the partition of Germany after World War II," yet the project moves forward.  The most recent volume to be published was for the letter P, but Pinkerton explains that the work hasn't proceeded in a strictly alphabetical fashion: "They skipped over N years ago because it has so many long words, and now they've had to go back to that one," he reports. "They're also working on R at the same time. That should take care of the rest of this decade."

Are the few people who use the work enough to justify the expensive, long-term effort, though? Editor Nigel Holmes confesses that he doesn't know.

While Latin may be dead as a spoken language, its influences ripple through many of the tongues spoken by people living in the former Roman Empire. It was one of the first "global languages," and learning about the meanings of Latin words is more than just a way to discover interesting trivia. Ancient languages can connect students to classic stories and schools of thought, but also tell experts how ideas and culture spread. The study of languages offers insight it history and how we arrived to where we are now.

The current schedule puts the finish line for the Thesaurus sometime in 2050, but Holmes thinks that deadline might be ambitious. Each word gets its own entry in the appropriate volume, and it includes branching trees of how that word relates to others. Every new shade of meaning a word gathers deserves its own branch. 

"It's meant to be the most painstakingly thorough reference work available," Pinkerton reports. There are other ones for Latin, such as the Oxford Latin Dictionary, but the Thesaurus will be the most complete. Scholars around the world draw on the Thesaurus for their work and to inform books and articles. Yet the earlier volumes are more like lists of definitions, not as exhaustive as more recently completed ones. Furthermore, new discoveries of ancient inscriptions turn up words that should go in volumes A through P. 

The work is exhaustive and exhausting, but someday researchers could publish the final volume. Then they may just have to go back to the beginning and start to update the first.

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