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More about Dictionaries

I did the junior year abroad thing when I was an undergraduate, except at my college it was actually a six-month program. I chose the Germany-Austria program because I was a philosophy major and everyone told me that all philosophers had to know German.

Learning German was rough, particularly during the Austria half of the program. I took a German language class at the Dolmetscher Institut at the University of Vienna and my professor was brutal. He used to walk up and down the rows, standing directly in front of the person whose turn it was to do the exercise in question. You got one chance to look at your book and then you had to look up at him and do whatever it was the exercise required (e.g., changing the tense of the verb or the number of the subject). I remember once some poor guy in the row behind me made the mistake of trying to look down at his book a second time. Wham! The professor slammed his book down on top of the poor guy’s book obscuring the page.

That class was always suspenseful because the professor also liked to make fun of students who had done the exercise correctly but whom he suspected did not understand the meaning. He’d try to strike up a conversation on the subject of the exercise with the sole purpose of humiliating his victim by exposing the person as shabby automaton, with no real understanding of what he was doing.

Now what does all this have to do with Kierkegaard, you ask. Well, I will tell you. That sadistic German professor insisted that we throw out our bilingual dictionaries and begin, as soon as possible, to work exclusively with a German-German dictionary. He was right.

I know I directed you to the wonderful Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary, and you will certainly want to use it as your primary Danish-English dictionary. There is a lot to be said, however, for working with Danish-Danish dictionaries as well. Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog from 1833 is available as a pdf from Google books. That’s the dictionary most Kierkegaard scholars have traditionally used when contemporary Danish-English dictionaries failed them. Molbech’s dictionary is certainly useful (with the 1859 edition being the more useful of the two given that dictionaries tend to document usage from a slightly earlier period than their publication date). An even better resource, however, is the monumental Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog, the Dane’s equivalent of the OED. Unfortunately it takes up an enormous amount of bookshelf space and is prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the Danes are more egalitarian than the Brits, so the ODS is actually freely accessible in a searchable online version. I guarantee it will help your Danish, plus, it’s a lot easier than trying to use the pdf of Molbech because it is searchable, while Molbech, because it is in Fraktur, is not. Check it out!

Danish-English Dictionary from Kierkegaard’s Time-Now Online!

The best Danish-English dictionary for Kierkegaard scholars is one I stumbled across by accident. Copenhagen is a great city for antiquarians. (The former head of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, Hans Bagger, had a shop there when I first moved there in 1990.) Every summer the various antiquarians would sell what was effectively their overstock in what they called Hollandsk bogauktioner (Dutch book auctions) in Helligåndshuset right off Strøget. I spent a large part of every summer combing through the tens of thousands of books at each of these sales. I always looked for old Danish-English dictionaries because Danish has changed a lot since Kierkegaard wrote. Even Danes complain that his Danish is so old fashioned it is hard to understand, so contemporary Danish-English dictionaries are not always terribly helpful to Kierkegaard scholars. Old bilingual dictionaries are hard to come by though, because bilingual dictionaries tend to be used until they fall apart.

I think I’d been in Denmark about seven years before I found a 19th-century Danish-English dictionary.  It was very beat up, but still, I was excited because it was from 1845, smack in the middle of the period of Kierkegaard’s authorship. Shortly after I found it, Johnny Kondrup gave a lecture at the new Søren Kierkegaard Research Center on important resources for Kierkegaard scholarship. He mentioned several Danish-English dictionaries, but not mine. I approached him after the lecture and handed him my dictionary. I asked him if he had ever seen it before. No, he said, examining it closely. He’d not seen it, but he’d heard of it. About a week later, Johnny sent me an article on the dictionary from Magazin, one of the official publications of the Royal Library. Yes, that’s right an article by the Danish lexicographer and editor of the contemporary “red” Danish-English dictionary published by Gyldendal, Jens Axelsen, on the little dictionary I had found.  The dictionary also figures prominently in Axelsen’s excellent En Rød Klassiker (A Red Classic) (Gyldendal, 1995) on the history of Gyldendal’s Danish-English dictionaries. It turned out that my little dictionary, A Danish-English Dictionary edited by J.S. Ferrall and Thorl. Gud. Repp, was the very first Danish-English dictionary that had been put together according to philologically, or lexicographically, defensible principles and that it was thus he forerunner to all the later Danish-English dictionaries.

The primary editor, Thorleifr Gudmundson Repp, was from Iceland and was apparently a gifted philologist. Being from Iceland, however, meant that he had rather a hard time at the University of Copenhagen, which hard time culminated in his being denied his degree. It seems he’d been goaded into behaving badly at his dissertation defense and that his conduct at the event was used as the excuse for denying him his degree. Nice, eh? So anyway, Thorleifr had something of an ax to grind against the Danes and ground it by writing a preface to his dictionary which is a scathing exposé of the fact that nearly all the earlier Danish-English dictionaries had been plagiarized from German-English dictionaries. This preface is a great read. Unfortunately, it was omitted from all the many subsequent editions of the dictionary, so until now, few people have had access to it.

I’d spoken with Wipf and Stock about the possibility of their publishing a facsimile of the dictionary, but doing so would have meant destroying the one copy I had in that it would have required taking it appart. I’d tried to get a second copy. When I still lived in Denmark, I’d taken the little dictionary to every antiquarian in town, but they all told me the same thing: it was impossible to get. So anyway, I kept putting off the decision of whether to destroy my one precious copy in the hope that seemed against hope that another copy would turn up.  In recent years, I’ve begun periodically to check the stock of antiquarians on line in search of another copy. I never had any luck until yesterday and what happened yesterday was not what I expected. I typed “Danish-English dictionary 1845” into Google and discovered that the dictionary had been scanned and was available on Google Books. Yes, that’s right. You can read the whole dictionary, including the wonderful preface, on line or even download it as a pdf file. Unfortunately, you can’t search it because the words are in Fraktur (though the definitions are in regular Roman type). You can page through it though, so your situation will be no worse than it would be if you had the actual physical edition. The preface, you will be pleased to hear, like the definitions, is in regular Roman type, so those of you who don’t like reading Fraktur don’t have to worry about that inconvenience if you want to read the preface.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this discovery. It means that I don’t have to destroy the little dictionary that is so important to my work that I carry it on my person when I move from place to place. Yes it’s a “little” dictionary, a Handwörterbuch, or “pocket dictionary,” as they say. You’d have to have a pretty big pocket to accommodate it though. I’ve worked with many dictionaries and I can tell you, this one is very comprehensive. It even has a separate list of foreign words and their definitions in the back. It’s a fantastic resource for English-speaking  Kierkegaard scholars, as well as Hans Christian Andersen scholars. who, until now, if they wanted to know the real meanings of Danish words in the 19th century, had to rely on Molbech’s Danish dictionaries from 1833 and 1859, Meyer’s Fremmed Ordbog (dictionary of foreign words) and the gargantuan 28 volume Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog (dictionary of the Danish language). It’s also very frustrating to work with any of these resources if one’s command of Danish isn’t really top notch because they are all only in Danish.

Well, life just got a little easier. Go into your browser and type “Danish-English dictionary 1845” and the first hit you will see will be to the complete text of this wonderful little dictionary in Google Books.

Happy Holidays!