Friday, November 8, 2013

Side notes: Cotgrave's French Dictionary

            One of my main goals in this project was to study the nature of the language used in L’Encyclopédie, and I thought it might be interesting to consult a period French dictionary in doing so. Randle Cotgrave published Cotgrave’s French Dictionary in 1673, which was about 100 years before the L’Encyclopédie. According to Wikisource, Cotgrave published multiple editions of the dictionary, starting in the year 1611 and ending with the edition in my possession, which was revised and edited by James Howell. Although it might be more accurate to work with a dictionary published closer to the time of Diderot and d’Alembert, this dictionary gives a thorough overview of both old French terms and general language structure.
bulk of the work was done for
            The dictionary starts with a section on French grammar, which Howell deems is necessary because starting a dictionary without first addressing grammar would be as if one were “to make the building precede the basis.” Further, having knowledge of the use of words in context will make the task of understanding those words much more reasonable. The first section, Of the French Letters, begins with the proclamation that the “English [alphabet] hath two letters, K and W, more than the French, which consists of 22 only, viz. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X, Y, Z.” What? This statement not only asserts that the French (in 1673, at least) did not use the letters K and W, but also that neither French nor English at the time used the letters J or U! These two letters are missing from the list of 22 “French letters” provided by Howell, which, with the addition of K and W, is implied to be the English alphabet of the time, too.
            “French is a hungry language, for it devours more consonant than any other, which makes his speaking and writing to differ so much as doth his singing and writing,” explains Howell in a section concerning consonants. Aside from the fact that I really like his use of colorful language in describing French as a “hungry language,” I agree with Howell’s observation.  In my own experience, I have found that speaking French requires the distinct pronunciation of many consonant sounds that are difficult to English speakers. Learning how to move your and use your mouth and voice box to create the appropriate inflections and consonant sounds is challenging. From there, Howell goes through the French pronunciation of particular letters sounds, explaining how certain letters behave in different contexts of the language. For example, “X is pronounced in French as in English, but in these and all other numerical words it is pronounced like Z…[as in] deuxieme, the second.” What follows is a lengthy description of everything from the future perfect tense to the “syntaxis of nouns”, the detail of which is astonishing. In eight years of formal French study, I have never come across such a thorough explanation of French grammar and all that it encompasses (though I probably could have used it while studying for some tests).
Then, after a few letters to various public officials (some Lords, some Earls), the entries begin. Frankly, it looks like a pretty standard dictionary; observing the words and phrases included is fascinating nonetheless. There are so many period terms that I have never heard of, like the verb “fossailler”, which means “to ditch it; to make a pit or ditch.”
Studying Cotgrave’s dictionary was an interesting side project, but next I plan to explore some of the planche editions of L’Encyclopédie, which include diagrams and illustrations that accompany the main texts. 

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