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Otto Zwartjes

Missionary dictionaries are printed books or manuscripts compiled by missionaries in which words are listed systematically followed by words which have the same meaning in another language. These dictionaries were mainly written as tools for language teaching and learning in a missionary-colonial setting, although quite a few dictionaries have also a more encyclopedic character, containing invaluable information on non-Western cultures from all continents. In this article, several types of dictionaries are analyzed: bilingual-monodirectional, bilingual and bidirectional, and multilingual. Most examples are taken from an illustrative selected corpus of missionary dictionaries describing non-Western and languages during the colonial period, with particular focus on the function of these dictionaries in a missionary context, the users, macrostructure, organizational principles, and the typology of the microstructure and markedness in lemmatization.


The Early Modern interest taken in language was intense and versatile. In this period, language education gradually no longer centered solely on Latin. The linguistic scope widened considerably, partly as a result of scholarly curiosity, although religious and missionary zeal, commercial considerations, and political motives were also of decisive significance. Statesmen discovered the political power of standardized vernaculars in the typically Early Modern process of state formation. The widening of the linguistic horizon was, first and foremost, reflected in a steadily increasing production of grammars and dictionaries, along with pocket textbooks, conversational manuals, and spelling treatises. One strategy of coping with the stunning linguistic diversity consisted of first collecting data on as many languages as possible and then tracing elements that were common to all or to certain groups of languages. Language comparison was not limited to historical and genealogical endeavors, as scholars started also to compare a number of languages in terms of their alleged vices and qualities. Another way of dealing with the flood of linguistic data consisted of focusing on what the different languages had in common, which led to the development of general grammars, of which the 17th-century Port-Royal grammar is the most well-known. During the Enlightenment, the nature of language and its cognitive merits or vices became also a central theme in philosophical debates in which major thinkers were actively engaged.