Indiana State University Newsroom



Cordell Collection acquires its oldest word book

March 5, 2018

The newest addition in the Cordell Collection at Cunningham Memorial Library is also its oldest.

Italian humanist Johannes Tortellius' "De orthographia dictionum e Graecis tractarum," published in 1471, was purchased with funds from a special sesquicentennial event at Indiana State University in November. The event celebrated the university's Cordell Collection and the Schick Lecture Series and featured Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, co-hosts of "A Way with Words." The popular National Public Radio show examines language through history, culture and family. All of the proceeds benefited the Cordell Collection's purchase of a new dictionary.

Tortellius, who is largely known for his work with Pope Nicholas V and helping to establish the Vatican library, spent five years in Greece learning Greek in order to write this book, which documents Latin words of Greek origin and was completed in 1451.

The book was printed on the second press established in Rome and is now the oldest printed book in the Cordell Collection of Dictionaries. The collection's next oldest printed piece was published in 1478.

"De orthographia dictionum e Graecis tractarum" includes a short introduction to Greek spelling, pronunciation and syllabification. Each entry, which range in length from two lines to 24 pages, gives the word's Greek and Latin pronunciations, definitions and its earliest appearance in Latin literature.

"There are a couple of pages missing and, somewhere along the line, someone replaced the pages with ones from another edition, but the book has the original binding and is very typical of the time period," said Cinda May, chair of Special Collections at Indiana State. "There is no title page, as was the practice in early printed books, and it has a wonderful illuminated page. It is a lovely example of a book of the incunable period (1454-1501), with the thin columns of text and wide margins that were intended for glossing. This book not only has the beautiful illumination, but also it has other fancy initials and details drawn in red and purple pen work."Like so many early books, this piece also has worm holes. Today, we say ‘bookworm' and we mean someone who reads, but there really are bookworms."

The text served as a pre-cursor for dictionaries and etymologies that followed, May added, making it a seminal work in its own right.

"It influenced Ambrogio Calepino, one of the earliest Italian lexicographers, and Thomas Elyot, whose1538 dictionary set the template for Latin-English word books. These books were not really intended to be dictionaries like we think of today," May said. "Instead, they were part of the tradition where knowledge was being rediscovered in the West and languages had to be learned again. That gave rise to dictionaries and etymologies when people were trying to figure it out again, so they could pass the learning and ability to read these languages and unlock the literary and nonfiction works of the Classical period."

The Cordell Collection of Dictionaries began in 1969 with a gift of 453 English dictionaries to Indiana State from Warren and Suzanne Cordell. Warren Cordell, an Indiana State alumnus, continued to add to the collection over the years until his death in 1980. In total, he donated 3,232 editions and variants totaling 3,913 volumes. Today, the collection houses more than 30,000 volumes.

The collection includes in-depth, multiple editions of any work that is available and the latest piece helps fill in a gap in the collection's early dictionary works.

"It wouldn't have been possible for us to purchase the ‘De orthographia' if it hadn't been for the support of the attendees of the ‘A Way with Words' fundraiser," May said. "But now that it's here, I think Mr. Cordell would be pleased that it is part of the collection."

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Photos: https://photos.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Submitted-Photos/Staff-Uploads/i-JcGJKwX/0/3afd6b92/XL/Book%20open%201-XL.jpg - An image of an inside page of Italian humanist Johannes Tortellius' "De orthographia dictionum e Graecis tractarum," which was published in 1471 and is the oldest and most recent purchase for the Cordell Collection at Indiana State University's Cunningham Memorial Library. The text includes a short introduction to Greek spelling, pronunciation and syllabification. Each entry, which range in length from two lines to four pages, gives the word's Greek and Latin pronunciations, definitions and its earliest appearance in Latin literature.

https://photos.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Submitted-Photos/Staff-Uploads/i-HNhsTBF/0/ad7e3eb6/X2/Flowerscroll-X2.jpg - An image of the illumination drawn throughout "De orthographia dictionum e Graecis tractarum," a dictionary by Italian humanist Johannes Tortellius. The text was published in 1471 and is the oldest and most recent purchase for the Cordell Collection at Indiana State University's Cunningham Memorial Library. The text includes a short introduction to Greek spelling, pronunciation and syllabification. Each entry, which range in length from two lines to four pages, gives the word's Greek and Latin pronunciations, definitions and its earliest appearance in Latin literature.

https://photos.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Submitted-Photos/Staff-Uploads/i-q3rPf4P/0/22d2a00b/X2/3-X2.jpg - An image of the red and violet ink etchings on the inside page of "De orthographia dictionum e Graecis tractarum," a dictionary by Italian humanist Johannes Tortellius. The text was published in 1471 and is the oldest and most recent purchase for the Cordell Collection at Indiana State University's Cunningham Memorial Library. The text includes a short introduction to Greek spelling, pronunciation and syllabification. Each entry, which range in length from two lines to four pages, gives the word's Greek and Latin pronunciations, definitions and its earliest appearance in Latin literature.

Contact: Cinda May, chair of Special Collections, Cunningham Memorial Library, Indiana State University, cinda.may@instate.edu or 812-237-2534

Writer: Betsy Simon, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or betsy.simon@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

Italian humanist Johannes Tortellius’ “De orthographia dictionum e Graecis tractarum,” published in 1471, was purchased with funds from a special sesquicentennial event at Indiana State University in November.

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