Dictionaries such as this have their origins in the Catholicon Anglicum
The UK has a rich tradition involving language. Home of Pinter, Ayckbourn, Orwell, stretching back through Austen and Dickens, to arguably the greatest playwright in history, William Shakespeare, Britain has been exporting the ripe fruit of English language across the globe for centuries.
So it comes as no surprise that when a book described as representing “a crucial milestone in the evolution of the English dictionary” is set to leave UK shores, the Government is willing to go out of its way to keep it in the country.
This is why culture minister Ed Vaizey has placed an export bar on the Catholicon Anglicum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary that dates from 1483.
The 500-plus-year-old book was sold at auction in the summer to an overseas buyer for £92,500.
However, following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England, Mr Vaizey has held off from granting an export licence.
The conditions for the unusual move state that unless someone matches the £92,500 offer within the next few months, the dictionary – the only complete one of its kind in existence – will be allowed to leave Britain.
Not only is the Catholicon Anglicum one of the earliest examples of an English dictionary, it also a fantastic snapshot of a section of the ever-changing English dialect. It is thought that the book’s anonymous author was from Yorkshire, as many of the words reflect the region’s centuries-old inflections.
It is also believed that the dictionary had an important educational function. The book was written at a time when many of the country’s oldest grammar schools were founded, and much focus is placed on the Latin equivalents of English words. This suggests the manuscript was not only used as a dictionary of English, but also as a tool to help the ever increasing number of school pupils compose and translate to and from Latin.
We can see an example of this under the entry for the word child.a Childe; paruulus, pusio, puer, jnfans, infantulus, pusillus, puerulus, puellulus, soboles; puerilis, particicipium; pignus, proles; infantilis, infantuosus.
A spokesman for the Department for Culture Media and Sport described the book as “of outstanding significance for study of the development of English lexicography and of education more generally”.
The extraordinary decision to withhold the export licence was made on the grounds that the dictionary is closely connected with the country’s history and national life, and its departure would be a “misfortune” for the nation.
Christopher Wright from the RCEWA said: “This rare survival of a 15th Century English-Latin word list is one of the vital first steps on the road to the English dictionary as we know it today. Its anonymous author, possibly a Yorkshireman on the basis of some dialect words included, provides an invaluable witness to the English language as it existed in the second half of the 15th Century, and can claim an honourable place in the roll of famous lexicographers that stretches through Johnson and Murray into our own age.”
Mr Vaizey said: “The manuscript is of outstanding significance for the history of the English language, which is fundamental to the identity and life of our nation. The Catholicon would make a tremendous addition to any one of our great libraries and I hope it remains here in the UK permanently.”
Anyone interested in preventing the precious cultural artefact from going overseas has until March 16 to raise the funds. This period may be extended until June 16 if a serious intention to raise funds to buy the manuscript is made.