Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Semi-Barbaric Language

Two weeks ago an article in Freiburg’s Sunday paper titled Allgemeines Deutsches Glossarium (General German Glossary) described a sensational find in the basement of Basel’s university library. In 1750 the linguist and theologian Johann Jacob Spreng had started his dictionary or rather encyclopedia that at his death in 1768 comprised twenty hand-written volumes with 96,000 entries, translations, references, and explanations.

©University of Basel
Spreng‘s opus magnum was never published. One hundred years later the Grimm Brothers started their German Dictionary but only arrived at the letter F while Spreng covered the full alphabet. In addition, he left behind a big box with 35,000 additional well-ordered hand-written articles to be glued into his volumes.

Spreng was one of those many linguists who tried to transform the bits and pieces of the many German dialects into a common German language. While Martin Luther had laid the basis, the great Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz started it in 1697 in a systematic and scientific way by publishing „Unvorgreifliche Gedanken, betreffend die Ausübung und Verbesserung der deutschen Sprache“ (Non-enjoining thoughts regarding the practice and improvement of the German language).

Trying to bring the German language into shape, Spreng was a member of several Sprachvereine (language societies). Basel University celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1760 in Latin, and in 1780 Prussian‘s Frederick the Great lamented in French about German as a „semi-barbaric“ language. In his dictionary, Spreng made the point that everything could be said just as well in German. Consequently, terminology and the translation of the anatomical knowledge of his time form a large proportion of the glossarium. A real political push for the German language only came 50 years later following Napoleon‘s invasion.

Spreng tried to convey general knowledge instead of vocabulary. So the entry for Bargilden* describes the legal situation of free, taxable peasants in the Middle Ages who were under the protection of a feudal lord and therefore paid him fees.
*Literally ”free of guilds”, a word no longer relevant and used. I had to look it up.

You learn that Lohnheulerinnen (paid mourners) were abolished in the 14th century because during church services they whined too loudly. At nine in the morning maids and servants were fed eine halbe Zeile Brot (half a line of bread) and offered one measure (Maß) of beer. In case of heavy work, this amount was increased to four Maß.

For the first time I read the word hodenbrüchig and learned its meaning. Hodenbrüchig bis an Hals, sprüchwörtlich gesagt von Einem, der sich überweibert hat, und seiner Frauen Knecht ist (Ball busted up to the neck, said proverbially of a man who has taken on too many women and is in servitude to them). The reference given is Sebastian Franck, an early reformer and translator of Latin texts into German, who may have met Luther at Heidelberg in 1518.

You may read in Wikipedia that Spreng had a hard time at the University of Basel. He did not became full professor until 1762, six years before his death.

The University of Basel has opened the treasure chest and will transcribe and publish Spreng's General German Glossary in the coming years. So far they have finished the letter H with 294 (!) pages. Here is page 215 with the entry hodenbrüchig:

©University of Basel

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