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James Murray

James Murray Essay - Critical Essays

Murray, James

Introduction

James Murray 1837-1915

(Born James Augustus Henry Murray) Scottish linguist, philologist and lexicographer.

Murray holds a unique place in the history of the English language. He was the principal editor of a vast dictionary recording historical usage of English words dating back to the mid-twelfth century and beyond. This work became the Oxford English Dictionary, the most authoritative text extant on the English language. In addition to this decades-long project, which he had not yet completed on his death, Murray published several works exploring the development and different dialects within English. Himself holding only honorary university degrees, Murray was primarily responsible for the acceptance of modern language studies as part of the university curriculum.

Biographical Information

Murray was born on February 7, 1837, in Denholm, Scotland. The son of a linen manufacturer, Murray was largely self-educated. Adept at learning various languages, Murray had become headmaster of a local academy by the age of twenty-one. He later moved to London on account of his wife's health and took work in a bank. There he met members of the London Philological Society, which had for years been engaged in compiling a new English dictionary. Since the previous editor had died, Murray put forth a new plan for the project, seeking to ground the work in strict principles of historical precedent and accuracy. The project continued to languish for some years. Meanwhile Murray published several works on English usage, development, and dialect, including a famous article for the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1879, Murray, now president of the Philological Society and master at the Mill Hill private school, was asked to take over as chief editor of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. In 1884, the first installment appeared. In 1885, having been awarded a pension, Murray moved to Oxford to devote all his energies to the dictionary. He continued this work for the rest of his life, seeing about half the original project (slated to include six volumes of 1400 pages each but still continuing in various supplements) to publication. He was knighted in 1908. Murray died on July 26, 1915.

Major Works

Early in his career Murray wrote a number of short works, which at the time were considered to be important contributions to the scientific study of modern languages and dialects. Once in London Murray turned to the history of languages, editing works for the Early English Text Society. Despite the importance attached to these works at the time by students of the English language, it was as editor of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles that Murray made his lasting contribution to the study of English and other modern languages. The dictionary sought to provide authoritative definitions that were not merely supplemented by, but rather grew out of historical examples drawn from literature. Millions of quotations were compiled and organized to show changes in words' usage over time. The result was an exhaustive history of every word known to have been in use after the year 1150; a compilation that became, on its publication, the standard reference work for all students and scholars of the English language.

Critical Reception

Murray's contributions to the creation of The Oxford English Dictionary are considered to be astounding. He established the standards and editorial models used in the dictionary for years to come. Murray's method of reading quotations to obtain meaning is still used today as one of the principal methods of assembling material for revising the dictionary.

Principal Works

The Complaynt of Scotlande [editor] (nonfiction) 1549

Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland (nonfiction) 1868

Synopsis of Paley's Horae Paulinae (nonfiction) 1872

*A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles [editor] (nonfiction) 1884-1915

*In 1933 the dictionary was officially renamed The Oxford English Dictionary.

Criticism

James M. Garnett (review date 1884)

SOURCE: A review of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 5, 1884, pp. 359-66.

[In the following review, Garnett compares and contrasts Murray's A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles to An Anglo-Saxon Dicitonary, finding Murray's work the more valuable.]

English lexicography is at last beginning to receive the attention it deserves and requires. The publication of the works above mentioned [An Anglo-Saxon Dicitonary and A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles], of the second especially, will carry beyond the narrow circle of scholars the much-needed public information that the English language has a history, a history which every English-speaking man and woman should know; and that the English language did not begin with Shakspere, nor even with Chaucer—an old story, but one hitherto much neglected. Prof. Toller has done well to re-edit Bosworth's Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, first published in 1838,—how well, critics are still engaged in discussing. That the work needed re-editing no one will deny. Every Anglo-Saxon scholar has long felt the want of such a dictionary. The original work has been long out of print, and even if accessible, could not answer the demands of modern scholarship. Bosworth's Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary (1860) is too meagre to serve any but the most elementary purposes, so that English scholars were dependent upon German works, especially Grein's invaluable Glossary to the Poetry (1861-64), and the glossaries attached to special works, as that of Heyne to Beowulf, the best of its kind. Ettmüller's and Leo's Lexicons do not come into consideration, for the repelling arrangement of these works will always prevent their general use. The republication of Bosworth was then necessary, and Prof. Toller informs us that “Dr. Bosworth devoted much time and labor to the preparation of a second edition of his dictionary, but at the time of his death [in 1876] only the 288 pages which form Part I of the present issue had been finally revised by him”; and further, that “So much progress had been made with some succeeding sheets that it would have been a matter of considerable difficulty to make any but slight alterations in them. Consequently, after careful consideration, it was thought better to leave unchanged in the text certain points which would have involved extensive modifications, and, when the work should be complete, to note such in the preface or appendix.” These quotations give Prof. Toller's point of view. I rather think that he would have done better to make the necessary alterations in the work itself, even at the expenditure of considerable time and labor, for this work, when completed, will have to serve as the standard Anglo-Saxon dictionary for many years to come. Moreover, Bosworth's views of Anglo-Saxon phonology are completely antiquated, and a modern editor cannot afford to follow them. As to the treatment of æ and the separation of the short from the long vowels—both points referred to by Prof. Toller—with respect to the first, æ might have been treated alphabetically along with a, as Prof. Zupitza has treated it in the glossary to his edition of Cynewulf's Elene, or it might have been treated separately immediately after a, but it should not have been treated as ae. The separation of short from long vowels in the alphabetical list is altogether unnecessary, as Profs. Toller and Zupitza rightly think; in fact, the alphabetical arrangement of Zupitza's brief glossary may be taken as a model by future editors, for it shows, in this respect, a decided advance upon Heyne's arrangement. A more important matter, however, and one not so readily overlooked, is the phonetic quality of æ. Prof. Toller simply repeats Bosworth's older statements, e. g., Bosworth: “The short or unaccented Anglo-Saxon æ seems to have been a slight lengthening of the short a, approaching to ae or ai in faery or fairy, as appears from these cognate words: wael, wail; braedan, to braid; naegel, a nail, etc.” Toller: “The short or unaccented Anglo-Saxon æ has a sound like ai in main and fairy, as appears from these cognate words: wael, wail; braedan, to braid; naegel, a nail, etc.” While no longer calling æ “a slight lengthening of the short a,” Prof. Toller leaves unchanged Bosworth's statement as to its pronunciation. Further, Bosworth says: “The long or accented œ is found in the following words which are represented by English terms of the same signification, having ea sounded as in deal, fear; dœl, fœr, etc.” Toller: “The long or accented œ has the sound of ea in meat, sea. The œ is found in the following words, which are represented by English terms of the same signification, having ea sounded as in deal, fear; dœl, fœr, etc.” These views as to the sound of short æ and long œ are totally at variance with those advocated by modern Anglo-Saxon scholars. Again, Bosworth says: “The œ is often changed into á, as stœnen, stony, stán, a stone; lœr, lár, lore”; and Toller repeats the statement verbatim. This is a decided instance of “cart before the horse,” and if we look under a we find it reversed. Bosworth says: “The long á is often changed into œ, as lœár, lore, lran, to teach,” which also we find repeated verbatim in Toller, with the addition of “án, one; œnig, any”; so that apparently á and œ interchange ad libitum. The phenomena of umlaut (mutation) do not seem to be comprehended yet in England, notwithstanding Mr. Sweet's energetic labors, and dialectic variations receive no consideration. It is to be hoped that when Prof. Toller gets to i he will not follow Bosworth and say: “The Anglo-Saxon long or accented í had the sound of i in tine, fine, in these cognate words: tíne, fíndan [!], wín,” etc. The late Dr. Bosworth deserves great credit for his valuable services, but his ideas of Anglo-Saxon phonetics should not be taught to the present generation.

The deficiencies of this dictionary have been commented on by Mr. J. Platt in the Transactions of the Philological Society (1882-3-4), by Prof. Wülcker in Anglia (V, Anzeiger, Heft 4), and by Prof. Heyne in Englische Studien (VII, Heft 1), who is more complimentary than either of the other critics, and praises as it deserves the industry and labor expended on the work, but does not hesitate to note its shortcomings, and supplies many omitted words. Prof. Wülcker complains that Prof. Toller has incorporated Grein's Glossary into Bosworth's Dictionary, but he could not have neglected that work, and has acknowledged his obligations by the prominence given to Grein's references, although these obligations might have been more distinctly stated in the “Preliminary Notice.” The large number of examples and references shows that Prof. Toller has not spared labor, and the almost entire lack of any adequate helps to ascertaining the vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon prose works should cause critics to be lenient in judging omissions of words. A cursory comparison of a few columns of Grein's Glossary, s. l. H, with the corresponding words in Part II, prepared by Prof. Toller himself, shows, as was to be expected, numerous additions from the Anglo-Saxon prose vocabulary, and s. v. han-créd, where Grein has but one example from the whole body of Anglo-Saxon poetry (Seel. 68), Prof. Toller gives at least ten from the prose. Much space is taken up in the repetition of references for the same example, as no less than three for the word above mentioned, “Exon. 99a; Th. 370, 32; Seel. 68.” Also, in respect to proper names, which are rightly included, the dictionary emulates the encyclopaedia, and even long extracts, with translation, are given, as under “Beowulf” twenty-four lines from Thorpe's edition—in which article, by the way, we are informed that Beowulf was “a relation of Hrothgar,” and that this poem “must have been translated into Anglo-Saxon by a Christian—perhaps in the reign of Canute, about A. D. 1020.” These things ought not so to be. So too under “Brunan-burh,” after a long account of the battle and the locality, we have thirty-six lines, with translation, from the poem as printed in Dr. Guest's History of English Rhythms. This seems to be an unnecessary consumption of valuable space in a dictionary. It may be added that the only omitted word found in Grein in the columns compared as above was hangelle, with example from the Riddles (456).

Whatever may be said of the omissions and other shortcomings of the work—and Prof. Toller is well aware of their existence—the dictionary supplies a long-felt want. There is nothing to take its place, and it is to be hoped that Prof. Toller will be able to complete it speedily. Heyne's advice (Englische Studien, VII 135, ad fin.) would, however, be well heeded, as, in that event, the value of the two parts still to come, forming the second half of the work, would be much increased, and we should have an Anglo-Saxon dictionary that we might well be proud of.

The publication of the first part of the Philological Society's New English Dictionary, [A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles] edited by the President of the Society, Dr. J. A. H. Murray, marks...

(The entire section is 4005 words.)

W. H. Wells (review date April 1884)

SOURCE: “The Philological Society's New English Dictionary,” in The Dial, Vol. IV, No. 48, April, 1884, pp. 301-304.

[In the following review of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Wells praises the breadth of Murray's endeavor, but finds that Murray sometimes sacrifices accuracy in favor of originality.]

The age of Elizabeth has been called the Golden Age of English Literature, and that of Queen Anne the Augustan Age. In the absence of other special characteristics to distinguish the present period in Great Britain, we may apply a less euphonious title and call it the Age of Dictionaries. We have had dictionary periods before, but the...

(The entire section is 3129 words.)

The Nation (essay date 4 May 1916)

SOURCE: “Scotch Dialect,” in The Nation, London, Vol. 102, No. 2653, May 4, 1916, p. 495.

[In the following essay, the critic unfavorably compares James Wilson's Lowland Scotch to what the critic considers the superior work, Murray's Account of the Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland.]

It is now more than a generation since Sir James A. H. Murray, in his Account of the Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland, laid the foundation for the scientific study of the Scottish dialects. He hoped that similar studies would be made of at least the seven or eight main dialects, and that thus material would be collected for a new and complete Scots...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Anthony Burgess (review date 30 September 1977)

SOURCE: “Murray and His Monument,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3940, September 30, 1977, pp. 1094-95.

[In the following review of K. M. Elisabeth Murray's Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, Burgess expresses an appreciation for James Murray's modern approach to language.]

When Becky Sharp threw away her copy of Johnson's Dictionary—Miss Pinkerton's invariable gift to her departing students—it was not the least of her gestures in the direction of modernity. That book was a dog walking on its hind legs and, moreover, walking backwards. It tried to fix standards of usage in terms of the undefiled...

(The entire section is 3137 words.)

Hazel K. Bell (essay date October 1996)

SOURCE: “The Making of a Dictionary: James A H Murray,” in The Indexer, Vol. 20, No. 2, October, 1996, pp. 78-80.

[In the following essay, Bell recounts Murray's efforts to compile and publish the Oxford English Dictionary.]

Caught in the web of words: James Murray and the Oxford English dictionary, K M Elisabeth Murray's biography of her grandfather (Murray 1977), was reviewed by The Times as describing ‘how a largely self-educated boy from a small village in Scotland entered the world of scholarship and became the first editor of the Oxford English dictionary, and a lexicographer greater by far than Dr Johnson’. It makes fascinating...

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