As It Happens

125 years in, scholars are still decades away from finishing ancient Latin dictionary

Scholars in Germany have spent more than a century working on an ancient Latin dictionary called the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae and they estimate they still have decades worth of work left to go.

Lexicographer Adam Gitner has spent a year working on a single phrase

Adam Gitner is lexicographer working on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae project. (Hubertus Breuer)


It's called the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. And it's considered "the most authoritative dictionary of ancient Latin." 

Researchers in Germany have spent the last 125 years working on the project. By their own estimates, they don't expect to wrap up until at least 2050. 

Lexicographer Adam Gitner spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the arduous process of compiling each entry and what keeps him going.

Here is part of their conversation.

It has been 125 years of work. What letter of the alphabet are you and your colleagues on?

So we are working on the letters R and N right now, having skipped over Q.

Why did you skip Q?

Well, if you know Latin, you know that there are a lot of relative pronouns that begin with the letter Q.

It was a strategic choice that was made to deal with all the rest of the letters first so that we could come back to that having sorted out all the other lexical problems.

Gitner says he has worked on the two-word phrase, res publica, for about a year. (Submitted by Adam Gitner)

And what word are you on? 

I'm working on res publica. So it's not exactly a word. It's a phrase of two words: res and publica, meaning, literally translated, "public thing."

But it's important because we get the word "republic" from it. So it's a word the Romans used to refer to their own system of government.

I mean, res is "thing"?

Res means thing. Well, it means a whole lot of things. It can mean issue, welfare, legal trial, situation.

And in the phrase res publica, you can get all of those meanings of res as well. So it's a complicated thing.

This is a thesaurus as opposed to a dictionary. So it's a far larger project, isn't it?

Well, the word thesaurus may be a bit misleading in English because to us we hear that word and we think of a book of synonyms.

But in Latin, thesaurus means "treasury" and it was used for the first important Latin dictionary in the 16th century. It just describes our goal to be as complete as possible in documenting this language.

What do you need to know besides what you would in a traditional dictionary? How much further do you go in looking at the Latin words in your work?

When you hear the word "dictionary," you think usually of a book that gives you a few definitions, and then definitions of the word, and maybe a few examples.

But what we do is give you every example. So every definition and every example sorted by definition. And then there's a footnote to that because in some cases we do abbreviate. But every time we abbreviate, we give an indication to the reader that we have more material in our physical archives that they could consult if they'd like.

And our time frame is from the beginning of Latin until about 600 AD. And since Latin begins in the sixth-century BC, that's about 12 centuries of material — a really, really long span of time.

And do you have access to all that material?

We have about 10 million physical slips, note cards, where all this material was recorded, where all of the surviving Latin texts in the period have been recorded and documented. And it's a growing archive.

So when new inscriptions are found or new ancient texts are published, we make sure to include that.

OK. Now, with all respect to the work, why is it taking so long?

Like I said, our ambition is to be complete and there's an enormous amount of material.

For res publica alone, there's about 6,500 note cards to go through. A lot of that material is very straightforward. But there are passages and occurrences that are really, really difficult.

So sometimes you need to spend a day, or two days, working on a single occurrence. Sometimes you need to go back to look at an inscription to see what it physically looks like. You need to look at an ancient manuscript.

There are disagreements often. You don't know what ancient writers wrote at some point. So you often have to do a lot of original research to figure out what it would mean.

And then you have to deal with specialty topics like ancient veterinary science or ancient cooking or Roman law. So it takes an enormous amount of time sometimes. But that's also what's so exciting about it because you're forced to really re-imagine a whole vanished world.

Gitner says the researchers are working with about 10 million physical slips and note cards and that the archive is growing. (Submitted by Adam Gitner)

How long have you been working on res publica?

About a year.

I mean, do you ever get tired and want to move on?

No. I mean, there are points that are maybe less exciting than others. But I make discoveries every day and I wish I had more time to write about them.

How fluent are you in Latin?

Difficult question because there's no Roman around to tell me that I'm not fluent. I have no way of judging, really.

I feel pretty comfortable reading a lot of things. But then you encounter an ancient graffito, written in a very colloquial form of Latin, or you encounter a theological treatise, and you realize how much vocabulary you don't know.

What's enjoyable about it is you're always learning.

The ambition is to have it finished by the year 2050. Do you see yourself seeing it through? 

I really hope so. And I know all my colleagues really hope so. And I'm sure there are people working now in the library and on the weekends. The amount of dedication to it is incredible.

But we've been proven wrong in our predictions about our completion dates in the past. So we'll have to see.

Written Katie Geleff and John McGill. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.