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Say what? U-M Library puts English language history online

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—This book was 75 years in the making at the University of Michigan, has more than 15,000 pages and takes up nearly four feet of shelf space.

And now what has been called the greatest achievement in medieval scholarship in America and the most important single project in current English historical lexicography is off the bookshelf and freely available in an online version.

The task for editors compiling the Middle English Dictionary was to document the English language from just after the Norman Conquest up to the introduction of the printing press at the end of the 1400s. With that innovation the language became more or less standardized, but during the Middle Ages, the language evolved under the stress of events and social change, particularly as French culture was absorbed into the language. These were truly the formative years of the English language, presenting major challenges to lexicographers.

By converting the contents of the Middle English Dictionary into an enormous database, the dictionary has been made searchable in ways impossible in a printed document of its size. Medievalists, English language scholars and the curious can now access the dictionary free of charge.

The database includes information on the origins of technical writing, popular culture, notable literary works, medicine, law, science, ship-building, encyclopedias, translations of the Bible, maps, letters, wills, acts of State, recipes, philosophy, mathematics and numerous other subjects, providing a distant mirror of Medieval culture and society. In addition to the linked information, the dictionary also provides the full, searchable text of more than 100 important Medieval documents in their entirety.

"We've always wanted to see an interlinked web of dictionaries that together cover the very multilingual world of medieval Britain along with antecedent and successor languages," said Paul Schaffner of U-M?s Digital Library Production Service. "The division between dictionaries has always been rather artificial in a multilingual society where words tend to slip back and forth between languages. There are many words, especially commercial and legal words that cannot be easily assigned to one language or another."

The need for free access to this resource was made apparent by inquiries from around the world. Now the English teacher in Uganda can finish a translation of a Middle English mystery play for his students, the English gentleman attempting to determine the origin of his surname on behalf of a society of those with the same name will find an easier path to success and independent scholars and emeritus faculty will have full access for their research. Students at various colleges and universities who use the Middle English Dictionary for class assignments will be able to complete their assignments from home computers.

"Support from the National Endowment for the Humanities was crucial in bringing this project to completion," said John Wilkin, who led the digitization project and is the architect of U-M's digital library effort. "Now, with support from the U-M Library, this invaluable historical and linguistic resource will open the path to our shared past to more people than ever before."

Middle English Dictionary