Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Defining the Law: 400 Years of Legal Dictionaries

Language evolves. The English used by Chaucer is drastically different than that used by Shakespeare which in turn doesn’t much resemble that used by Stephen King. The argument can be made that were it not for television and modern communication technology American English and British English would inevitably diverge from each other, resulting in two distinct languages. As is, the different pronunciation and slang terms can make it difficult for native speakers from both sides of the pond to understand each other. It is through dictionaries that we can trace the origins and evolution of words. The oldest known dictionary dates from around 2300 BC. It is a bilingual wordlist in Sumerian and Akkadian on a cuneiform tablet. Determining when the first law dictionary was published is difficult, as our knowledge is limited to surviving copies and notations in the historical record. It is not unreasonable to suggest that a legal dictionary in some form existed during the time that Justinian codified Roman law in the 6th century or even when Hammurabi wrote his Code in 1760 BC. Regardless of when the first law dictionary was written, please enjoy this sample of dictionaries from the Special Collections Department. This exhibition will be up through May 31, 2009.