The Contribution of Dictionaries to Preventing the Loss of Cultural Knowledge

The Contribution of Dictionaries to Preventing the Loss of Cultural Knowledge

Oliver Corff

(50th Annual Meeting, 2007)

The general development of science is accompanied by the introduction of new paradigms prompted by new scientific findings, as well as the abolishment of old concepts which are not coherent with these new findings. In this process, old concepts are declared as obsolete and their followers are frequently considered as enemies of progress. In consequence, traces of old knowledge are purged from current reference works since they are considered as erroneous. Nonetheless, old or superseded knowledge has a distinct value, at least as a milestone in the advance of science. Insight into old knowledge helps us appreciate the progress of civilization, and assists us in fathoming the dimension and scale of social, cultural and political change.

A typical example for the complete replacement of traditional science (the definition of which is not necessarily identical with today’s concept of science) is astronomy. Despite its long history, the traditional methods practised at the Qing imperial court were not able to predict eclipses precisely, and Western astronomy introduced by Jesuit scholars which could demonstrate a better precision replaced the old astronomical system practiced by Central Asian astronomers at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty.

This paradigm change can also be observed in dictionaries. The Wuti Qingwenjian or Pentaglot dictionary lists the seven planets as well as the so-called shadow planets Rahu and Ketu, but fails to disambiguate the categories which are otherwise well-defined. The same holds true for the category of astronomical instruments which are listed but lack a category heading. This loss of structural knowledge migrates into many later dictionaries based on the same fundamental word lists which were used to compile the Manchu and Mongolian dictionaries in the Qing Dynasty. In Hauer’s Manchu-German dictionary, many names of stars, constellations and the shadow planets are visibly misunderstood and rendered in terms of different celestial bodies.

Another example is the list of attributes used to describe the miraculous properties of Buddha. In the Pentaglot Dictionary of Buddhist Terms (yet another Pentaglot!), some of the colour names (e.g., ‘blue’) used in Manchu (‘rasiwar [wehe]’) and Mongolian are derived from words of Persian and eventual Arabic origin. Here again, the Pentaglot reveals the same word, this time used in Uighur, and the only Mongolian Dictionary to give full evidence of the etymology, even the only dictionary besides the Pentaglot Dictionary of Buddhist Terms to record this word is Kowalewski’s Mongolian Dictionary published in Kazan.

While it is understandable yet regrettable that dictionaries recording ‘common usage’ will fail to register terms deemed outdated, the value of Kowalewski’s work with regard to his respect and care for rare and obsolete words cannot be underestimated. This window into history also allows to appreciate ancient science and civilization.