orality, citations, corpora, and dictionaries

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Mon Jun 23 15:24:13 UTC 2003

On Mon, 23 Jun 2003, Frank Abate wrote:

> That said, I maintain my basic point -- since language is primarily an oral
> thing, and since known coinages (in speech or print) are quite rare, then
> written citations, whether employed for a slang or a general dictionary, are
> necessarily limited as regards their value as evidence, whether for earliest
> use (which, except for outright coinages, can never be known with
> certainty), or for understanding the sense and (especially) the syntax of
> any usage.

This viewpoint is a common one among linguists and not at all novel.
What is novel nowadays is a greatly enhanced ability of historical
lexicographers to reach further back into the history of the language (by
using searchable online collections of historical texts) than anyone would
have imagined possible in the past.  Inevitably the better first uses that
are being unearthed by the OED, by myself and by Barry Popik are going to
shed more light on etymologies and coinages than the kind of first uses to
which we have been accustomed since 1884.  We are still going to be
ignorant about the oral "prehistory" of a term preceding the earliest
printed usage, but the prehistories are now shorter in time and the
printed first uses are going to be closer to and more revealing of the
environments to which the true oral origins belong.

It should also be noted that the vast quantities of citations retrievable
through online searching can give us much more data about the
post-first-use histories and the synchronic usage (collocations, spelling,
significations, degree of formality, regional characteristics, etc., etc.)
than other methods, including, in many respects, corpora.

My American Speech article on "Earlier Computer-Assisted Evidence on the
Emergence of _Hopefully_ as a Sentence Adverb," American Speech 74: 439
(1999), illustrates how an extremely important word-usage can be
illuminated by online searching far beyond the dreams of any linguist
using a corpus or any other method.

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
Associate Librarian for Collections and     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
  Access and Lecturer in Legal Research     Yale University Press,
Yale Law School                             forthcoming
e-mail: fred.shapiro at yale.edu               http://quotationdictionary.com

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