Home 9 Against the Grain 9 v25 #1 Collecting to the Core

v25 #1 Collecting to the Core

by | Apr 3, 2013 | 0 comments

French Dictionaries

by Matthew Loving  (Romance Languages Librarian, University of Florida;  French and Italian Languages and Literatures Editor, Resources for College Libraries) <[email protected]>

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL)  <[email protected]>

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD

The production, maintenance, and perpetuation of great dictionaries constitute a lasting cultural legacy more meaningful than may first be apparent in the modern information environment.  This now-generalized linguistic resource, too often undervalued, overlooked, or left undusted on library shelves, has a long and venerable role in the development of the world’s great languages and cultures, particularly in France.  For the modern reader and researcher, such basic linguistic tools provide a better understanding of meaning, context, and usage when interpreting texts of yesterday and today.  This essay examines the evolution of French language dictionaries, many of which are now accessible online.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), begun in 1857 by the London Philological Society, contains over 600,000 words and is often recognized as one of the world’s most comprehensive and exhaustive single-language dictionaries.1  That said, the OED is neither the oldest nor the lengthiest dictionary in the world.  The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche taal, or Dictionary of the Dutch Language, is one of the world’s largest dictionaries, taking over 150 years to develop, edit, and complete.2  This exhaustive work now spans 40 printed volumes and contains over 50,000 pages of definitions. The Italian dictionary Vocabolario della lingua italiana represents one of the oldest and earliest-produced dictionaries.3  First printed in 1612, the Vocabolario della lingua italiana served as the historical model for similar works in French, Spanish, German, and English.  This early example, compiled and produced by Florence’s historic Accademia della Crusca, was dedicated to the further refinement and development of the Italian vernacular.  Its success as one of the first single-language dictionaries was soon replicated throughout the Western world as national languages began to challenge Latin as the unrivaled idiom of learning and official communication.

The French medieval antecedents to modern dictionaries, such as thematic glossaries and claves, are often associated with specific works, themes, or domains of knowledge.4  These resources, dating from the Middle Ages, led to later bilingual works such as Le Dictionnaire françois-latin produced by Robert Estienne.5  The 1539 publication of Estienne’s French-Latin dictionary debatably represents the first step toward a single-language dictionary in France.  Working with his father Henri, the renowned printer and classical scholar, Robert was well-placed in the heart of Paris’ Latin Quarter to produce such a work, which by its inverse usage laid an important groundwork for future single-language French dictionaries.  In later editions of Estienne’s Latin-French dictionary, Dictionarium latinogallicum (1552), increasing emphasis on the French can be detected.6  Jean Nicot, the famed French diplomat and scholar, who collaborated with Estienne, would later produce the Thresor de la langue françoise tant ancienne que moderne (1606), the era’s closest prototype to future single-language works.7

Much like its Italian cousin, Accademia della Crusca, the primary raison d’être of the French Academy (l’Académie française) was from its inception the improved control over language through the production of an official dictionary.  The forty-member body, whose members to this day are baptized les immortels, still strives to fulfill its earliest edict: “to labor with all the care and diligence possible, to give exact rules to our language, to render it capable of treating the arts and sciences.”8  As designated by Cardinal Richelieu and decreed by Louis XIII, the Academy was granted official authority over all usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language.  However, the Academy is even today often overruled by the court of popular opinion.  For example, an email often remains un e-mail (from the lexicon of Bill Gates) in flagrant violation of the Academy’s mandated courrier électronique.  Continuously updated, the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française is overseen by a special commission, Commission du dictionnaire, and has been published thirteen times since its earliest incomplete editions began appearing in 1647.

As cultivated and literate segments of French society began debating correct usage of their language, the need for official intervention became clear.  A growing obsession with correct usage permeated the highest ranks as even Jesuit educational institutions began slowly opening themselves up to the use of French.  Wanting to match their language’s world standing with France’s growing cultural and nationalistic aspirations, the royal court soon demonstrated a clear interest around the production of dictionaries during the seventeenth century.  The inability of the French Academy to readily reproduce the success of Florence’s Accademia dictionary allowed other authors to insert their own efforts into the breach.  The Dictionnaire françois by Richelet (1680), Dictionnaire Universel by Furetière (1690) and, following sixty years of delay, the Dictionary of the French Academy (1694) represented unparalleled intellectual and political emphasis on control over language.9-11  Perhaps in error, the French Academy had originally laid the monumental task of creating its official dictionary on the shoulders of one man, Claude Favre de Vaugelas.  Unfortunately, Vaugelas died without progressing much past the Cs.  By contrast, Richelet’s timely success was both an embarrassment for the Academy and an advance for French lexicography.  Even though his dictionary, secretly published in Switzerland, was initially banned in France, the police were powerless to stop its popularity and ubiquitous usage.  His early reliance on author citations from existing literature, a strategy inherited from Jean Chapelain and the efforts of others, remains a cultural hallmark of modern French dictionaries.  These citations, pulled from the pantheon of French literature, make historic and modern French dictionaries all the more useful for scholars and undergraduate language and literature students. In contrast to the publications of Richelet and Furetière, the French Academy refused use of author citations and was not initially organized in alphabetical order.  Rather, an awkward presentation was put forward that listed words derived from alphabetized root words (e.g., emballer: BALLER).  Fortunately, the second edition of the dictionary (1718) reflected both the innovations and improvements of a wide range of French and European lexicographers who contributed to the official publication.

Émile Maximilien Paul Littré, the French lexicographer and philosopher, began work on his French dictionary in 1844.  Two revolutions and some thirty years later, he was able to complete the Dictionnaire de la langue française, or simply the “Littré,” as it was known.12  Published by his lifelong friend and Louis-le-Grand classmate, Louis Hachette, this work would become one of the great models of quality and sophistication in dictionaries of the nineteenth century.  Pierre Athanase Larousse was the other titan of nineteenth-century dictionary development.  Larousse published not only his fifteen volume Grand Dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle, but also many other outstanding reference works during the era.13  The main difference between the Littré and the Grand Larousse was that the latter was in reality an encyclopedic coverage.  However, within his encyclopedic reference work Larousse often inserted his own unobjective frames of reference.  For example, his dictionary listed two references for the historical figure of Napoleon; one under “B” for Bonaparte and another under “N” for Napoleon I.  According to the article on Bonaparte, he died on the eighteenth of Brumaire, the very day which he crowned himself Napoléon I of France.  The modern descendant of Larousse’s original Grand Dictionnaire, the Grand Larousse encyclopédique en dix volumes, is one of the most consulted French dictionaries in North America.14  Today Larousse publishing is known as a world leader in reference materials, hosting www.larousse.com and offering students easy and fast access to over twenty online dictionaries.

In 1964 Paul Robert, working with Alain Rey, Josette Debove, and a network of lexicographers, produced the Alphabetical and Analogical Dictionary of the French Language (Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française), or what is more commonly known as Le Robert or Grand Robert de la langue française.15  This dictionary, much like the Larousse, soon became a modern household name in the French-speaking world.  Le Grand Robert was originally published in six volumes but was soon reissued with a supplement in 1970.  In addition to containing all words accepted by the French Academy, it included scientific and technical terms, commonly used colloquialisms, and archaic words that appear in classical French literature.  Lengthy quotations from contemporary French writers demonstrate historical changes in the use of words and draw on modern-day examples to clarify usage.  Le Grand Robert, together with the ten-volume Grand Larousse, are two of the more widely-held single-language, encyclopedic French dictionaries.

Fortunately for students and researchers, many of these historical and contemporary dictionaries are available online.  In addition to improving access through digital facsimiles of historical dictionaries, there are other online tools that further support academic research in these areas.  The Grands corpus des dictionnaires is a subscription database maintained by Classiques Garnier Numérique.16  This online resource covers the ninth to twentieth centuries and offers over 900,000 historical entries, from Frédéric Godefroy’s Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue française et de tous ses dialectes du 9e au 15e siècle (1881-1902) to the French Academy dictionary and many other works that provide important evidence of the historical development of linguistic tools.  In addition to subscription database resources, the University of Chicago’s ARTFL Project also plays an important role in providing public access to early works such as the Dictionaires d’autrefois as well as Diderot’s Encyclopedie.17

Dictionaries offer important starting points to a deeper understanding of French language and culture.  They represent monumental efforts to codify and describe usage and context of a language, and their design and diverse structures remain extremely useful in research. Julie Coleman, in “Using Dictionaries and Thesauruses as Evidence,” suggests that dictionaries provide today’s linguists with at least five major areas of evidence.18  She notes that in addition to their more obvious use as references, they also provide linguists with positions and evidence to argue against, as well as assistance researching attitudes toward language, social anxiety, and linguistic changes over time.  While many of the historical resources cited here are more appropriate for the advanced undergraduate, graduate student, or researcher, their digital availability and deep scholarly relevance make them suitable for anyone interested in French language, grammar, literature, or historical records.


1.  Murray, James A. H., William A. Craigie, and C. T. Onions. A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles: Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by the Philological Society. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1884.  Print.  http://archive.org/details/oedvol01

2.  de Vries, M., and L. A. te Winkel. Woordenboek Der Nederlandsche taal. ‘s-Gravenhage: M. Nijhoff, 1882.  Print.  http://archive.org/details/woordenboekderne01sgrauoft

3.  Accademia della Crusca. Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca: Con Tre Indici Delle Voci, Locuzioni, e Proverbi Latini, e Greci, Posti per Entro L’opera. Venezia: Giovanni Alberti, 1612.  Print.  http://archive.org/details/vocabolariodegl03crusgoog

4.  Grondeux, Anne. Glossaires français du Moyen Âge: le Manuscrit H 236 de la Faculté De Médecine de Montpellier. S.l.: S.n., 1990.

5.  Estienne, Robert. Dictionaire françois-Latin, contenant les motz et manières de parler françois, tournez en Latin. Paris: impr. de R. Estienne, 1539.  http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k505878

6.  Estienne, Robert, and Terence R. Wooldridge. Dictionarium Latinogallicum: 1552. Chicago: ARTFL Project, n.d.. Internet resource.  http://artfl-project.uchicago.edu/content/dictionarium-latinogallicum

7.  Nicot, Jean, and Aimar de Ranconnet. Thresor de la langue francoise tant ancienne que moderne auquel sont les mots propres de marine, vénerie et faulconnerie. Paris: D. Douceur, 1606. Internet resource.  http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k58059k

8.  Fabre, Antonin. Chapelain et nos deux premieres academies. Paris: Perrin et Cie, 1890.  Print.  http://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101073046649

9.  Richelet, Pierre. Dictionnaire françois contenant les mots et les choses, pluseiurs nouvellesremarques sur le langue françoise, … [suivi de] remarques sur le Dictionnaire. Genève: Widerhold, 1680. <http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k509323>

10.  Furetière, Antoine, and Pierre Bayle. Dictionnaire universel,contenant généralement tous les mots françois tant vieux que modernes, et les termes de toutes les sciences et des arts. La Haye: A. et R. Leers, 1690.  http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k50614b

11.  Féraud, Jean F., Emile Littré, and Jean P. Nicot. Dictionnaires d’autrefois: French Dictionaries of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries; Jean Nicot’s Thresor de la langue française (1606), Jean-François Féraud’s dictionaire critique de la langue française (1787-1788), Émile Littré›s dictionnaire de la langue française (1872-1877) and the dictionnaire de l’Académie française 1st (1694), 4th (1762), 5th (1798), 6th (1835), and 8th (1932-5) editions. Chicago, Ill: ARTFL Project Department of Romance Languages and Literatures Division of the Humanities, University of Chicago, 2010. Internet resource.  http://artfl-project.uchicago.edu/node/17

12.  Littré, Emile. Dictionnaire de la langue française. Paris: Hachette, 1863. Print.  http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5406710m

13.  Larousse, Pierre. Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXesSiècle. —. Paris: Administration du Grand dictionnaire universel, 1865.  http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k205356p

14.  Larousse (Firm). Grand Larousse encyclopédique en dix volumes.  Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1960-64.

15.  Robert, Paul. Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue française: les mots et les associations des idées. Paris: Société du Nouveau Littré, 1965.

16.  Blum, Claude, ed. Grands corpus des dictionnaires. Paris: Classiques-Garnier.  http://www.classiques-garnier.com

17.  Diderot, Denis, and Robert Morrissey. Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers: The Artfl encyclopédie. Chicago, Ill.: ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago, 1996. Internet resource.  http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/*

18.  Coleman, Julie. “Using Dictionaries and Thesauruses as Evidence.” Oxford Handbooks Online. 2012-11-01Oxford University Press.  Date of access 30 Nov. 2012, http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199922765.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199922765-e-11.

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.


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