500 year-old dictionary reveals Yorkshire as they spoke it

The Catholicon Anglicum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary dating from 1483
The Catholicon Anglicum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary dating from 1483
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Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has placed an export bar on a more than 500 year old dictionary, thought to have been written in Yorkshire dialect, in a bid to stop it leaving the country.

The Catholicon Anglicum, a Middle English-Latin dictionary dating from 1483, was sold at auction in the summer to an overseas buyer.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture Media and Sport said the manuscript would leave the country unless a matching offer of £92,500 was made within the next few months.

The Catholicon Anglicum is said to represent a crucial milestone in the evolution of the English dictionary, and the manuscript is the only complete one in existence. The only other known copy is held at the British Library, but has lost leaves in several places.

One of the earliest examples of an English dictionary, it is thought to have been written in the north of England, specifically Yorkshire, based on the dialect of the English words present.

Produced in a century which saw the foundation of many grammar schools, there is much to be learned from further study of the manuscript in terms of its educational function. Its emphasis on the Latin equivalents made the Catholicon not simply a dictionary of English, but a tool to assist the growing number of school students with Latin composition.

The spokesman said Mr Vaizey took the decision to defer granting an export licence 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.

The recommendation was made on the grounds that it was so closely connected with the country’s history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune, and it was of outstanding significance for study of the development of English lexicography and of education more generally.

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.”

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.”

The decision on the export licence application for the manuscript will be deferred for a period ending on March 16 next year. This period may be extended until June 16 if a serious intention to raise funds to buy the manuscript is made at the recommended price of £92,500.