Building a dictionary of living language

WHAT every lexicographer knows is the truth of the prophet's ``of making many books there is no end.'' Who better placed to add ``Amen'' than the scholars who have helped to clock up 66 years - so far - on the compiling of a literary and historical dictionary of the Welsh language? The dictionary has reached a sort of milestone: With the delivery of the latest fascicle to the 3,000 or so subscribers, they have reached the end of the second volume; there is one to go.

Although an undertaking of this kind is hardly to be measured by time-and-motion studies, the editorial board has felt the need to quicken the pace, for the first time, the text has been set with the aid of a computer.

One of the editors, Andrew Hawke, has worked out an elaborate system whereby the composed pages are fed directly from the editorial offices at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth to Oxford University's computing service and eventually to the university press in the same city.

Transmission of texts is nothing: It is the form of the text that creates the problem. Each dictionary page of three columns of print needs about a thousand type changes, since each category of information has its own typeface; and this takes no account of the use of non-Latin scripts such as Greek and phonetic symbols and accents.

At the moment the editors are working through the letter ``m,'' having just completed ``ll,'' the sound unique to the Welsh language. Most English-speakers pronounce the letter as ``tl'' or ``thl'' or just as plain ``l,'' and the fact there are still about a million people able to pronounce the sound correctly is a sign of the strange and logic-defying vitality of this most ancient of European languages.

When the dictionary project was launched by the University of Wales in 1921, Welsh was more widely spoken than it is today but had fewer official and cultural props. It was excluded from most aspects of public life.

For this reason some wondered whether the dictionary would be completed before its subject had gone the way of Manx and Cornish, two other Celtic languages by that time extinct. The tongue was kept alive in places of worship, in rural areas, and in the cultural life of ordinary people. Today, with a Welsh-language TV channel and radio programs, a chain of schools where Welsh, not English, is the medium of instruction, and many civil posts calling for a command of the language, Welsh is enjoying a mild renaissance.

This is reflected in literature, always the supreme Welsh art. A thriving Welsh-language publishing industry turns out hundreds of titles every year. These include children's books, poetry, fiction, biography, and scholarly works. Because of the high costs of production and the relative smallness of the market, Welsh publishers receive official backing. The money is handed out through the Welsh Books Council, also based in Aberystwyth.

In a situation where a sale of 3,000 copies of one title is exceptional - a sign of best-sellerdom - there are no highly paid authors; but what a Welsh writer lacks in royalties he or she gains in immediacy of response. Welsh writers are closer to their readers, and they can meet their admirers on an eye-to-eye basis at the Pabell L^en (Literature Tent), a feature of the annual cultural gathering).

And what does the general reader make of the new dictionary as it arrives through the mail in its chaste pale gray covers with green lettering? He recognizes, of course, that although this is not the first Welsh dictionary, it is the only one that draws on the whole word-hoard of a literature going back to the 6th century.

The historical perspective is impressive and reassuring, but the human interest must be in the extraordinary range of local words and phrases incorporated in the work. Many people have seen recorded phrases and terms they had heard as children and forgotten - but the readers and compilers with their roomful of index cards in the National Library had not.

There is now only one regular reader contributing to the files, although many scholars and correspondents send in examples and comments for the collection. Most of the new terminology is now scientific and commercial, but there are still, according to the editors, several ancient texts to be properly edited so that, already, the earlier fascicles (the first one appeared in 1950) need revision.

Let's say there are another 18 fascicles to appear at the rate of 1 a year. That brings us to 1997, the date when it is hoped the work will be complete. At this time, as in Joyce's ``Finnegans Wake,'' we go back to the beginning and start incorporating new usages, later research into origins, and all the vagaries that befall a living language; and all this happening within the shadow of what has now become the universal lingua franca. It's what the Welsh would call rhywbeth rhyfeddol - something wonderful.

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