Redhouse – Ode to a Lexicographer

If you have been trained, or have studied a trade, to perform a job on a universally acknowledged level, but are not fortunate enough to enjoy the pleasures of laboring the fancy things in your field, you will mellow out spending time on things related to the prettier parts of your profession. Like I start doing now.

I am a translator. I labor foreign words to the satisfaction of my clients who need to receive texts foreign to them in their native tongue, or who do not have the time to naturalize those texts for their own use. I didn’t have the slightest idea, years ago when I started learning the English language, that I would be making a living by translating commercial documents, user manuals, agreements, websites, academic papers (undeservedly pretentious at times), separation deeds, passports, and many other unfancy works of this vale of tears. Wearisome as it might be from time to time, I like my job anyway. But I also like one particular aspect of my job, which is the incessant need to be absorbed in the immense sea of words of various origins in the dictionaries.

Dictionaries are not only books containing equivalents of words in another language, but they are also comprehensive works offering reflections on the reception of a culture in another one. Although I translate only from English and Italian into my native Turkish, I have somehow come to the possession of a collection of around 100 dictionaries over the years, most of which aren’t related to the languages I use at all. Not only dictionaries, but also grammar books on other languages have seized a place in my bookshelf, as is common, I suppose, with many failing polyglots. I have not acquired the working knowledge on those languages with this many dictionaries but they have been quite useful for me passing the time at my leisure with interesting bits of vocables that bring flavors from a thousands of years of build-up in other parts of the world.

One such dictionary is A Turkish and English Lexicon by the good old Sir James W. Redhouse who is the most revered by the academics interested in the history of the Turkish language for this voluminous work of his, shortly referred to as “Redhouse Lugati” (The Redhouse Lexicon) in Turkey.

Today’s Turkish educated class is not much familiar with the riches this grandiose work of a dictionary has to offer in terms of lexical affluence, as the huge vocabulary of a millennial tradition has been reduced to a chastened vernacular for the sake of simplicity and purity, free from involvement of foreign languages, namely, Arabic and Persian, which had had a perdurable influence on the Turkish language over the centuries. Yet, when it comes to law and jurisprudence, loanwords in the Turkish language remain to be unalienable.

Biographies of the author available online, mostly in the form of short articles and some academic papers, mainly cover his contributions in the field of linguistics, as well as details on the personal life of this interesting man.

James W. Redhouse was born in 1811 in Walworth, Surrey near London and was orphaned at age 5. He was a student at the Christ’s Hospital at age 8, and was either kicked out of school or dropped out at age 15, upon which he started working on a ship and deserted at arrival in Istanbul the same year (1826).

He started a new life here. Thanks to his talent at cartography and maritime, he managed to find a job at the shipyard in Istanbul, and had the chance to utilize his skills to learn languages such as Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, French, Italian and German (he may already have learned Greek and Latin back home). At age 19 he headed for Russia, to learn the Russian language (and maybe also to study some of the Turkic languages) where he started working on his Turkish dictionary called “Müntehebat-ı Lugat-i Osmaniye” (A Collection of the Ottoman Lexicon).

At age 22, he was back in Istanbul, but not to stay long, and then he went to London. At age 25 he got married to his first wife, Jane Carruthers Slade, who died in 1887 (Redhouse remarried in 1888 at age 77, to Eliza Colquhoun, daughter of Sir Patrick Colquhoun). At age 27 he was back in Istanbul again where he took service with Mehmed Hüsrev Pasha who became the Grand Vizier. Redhouse continued to serve as a dragoman and later he joined the office of Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

At age 31, he was sent to Erzurum to participate in the negotiations on territorial disputes with Persia and spent 4 years in Erzurum where he worked on his “Grammaire Raisonné de la Langue Ottomane” which was published in 1846.

At age 43 he was retired due to health issues, and returned to London with a retirement pension pay from the Ottoman Government. The same year he started his services for the English Foreign Office as an oriental translator. Among his publications are:

• Müntehabat-ı Lügat-ı Osmaniye – A Collecion of the Ottoman Lexicon (age 27)
• A Dictionary of Arabic and Persian Words Used in Turkish (age 42)
• Vade Mecum of the Ottoman Colloquial Language (age 44),
• Turkish Vade Mecum (age 66),
• A Simplified Grammar of the Ottoman-Turkish (age 73)
• A Turkish and English Lexicon Shewing the English Significations of the Turkish Terms (age 79).

The last one has been deservedly honored as being the first modern comprehensive dictonary of the Turkish language by the intelligentsia, and many subsequent works on Turkish lexicography referred to it as an important milestone in the field. This monumental dictionary of 2.224 pages, containing around 93.000 Turkish words and phrases of Turkish, Arabic, Persian and European origin, in the Turkish characters (i.e. the Ottoman script) with their pronunciation shown in Latin letters, was later rivalled by another great dictionary, called Kamus-ı Türki, prepared by Şemseddin Sami – an eccentric persona, known as Sami Frashëri in Albania, whom I will address in another post.

Decades later, in 1950, a commission of noted scholars such as Sofi Huri, Metin Celâl, Andreas Tietze, Nazime Antel, Fahir İz, Bahadır Alkım, Janos Eckmann and Robert Avery, has arranged a revised and extended version of this dictionary, called “Redhouse Türkçe-Osmanlıca-İngilizce Sözlük” (Redhouse Turkish-Ottoman-English Dictionary) – yet another prominent work of a dictionary with 160.000 words, printed in Latin letters, showing the original Ottoman spelling and syllabic companding. Until now, the work of Redhouse remains relevant and extremely in demand among specialists.


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