World’s biggest dictionary goes online

This week’s Leiden University newsletter has a story on the Dictionary of the Dutch language becoming freely available online in a few days. I forwarded this report to Mark Liberman, co-creator and senior writer of Language Log, a weblog about language I have greatly enjoyed reading since I discovered it last year. Mark found the story interesting enough that he posted it on LL, expanding it a bit to make it a more entertaining read than I could ever do.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an English report on the WNT going online, so all the juicy details were lost on non-Dutch speakers. (Of which I’m sure there are many amongst the Language Log audience.) Not anymore, though, as I will provide a translation right here:

The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT; Dictionary of the Dutch Language), will become freely available on the internet on Saturday, January 27, at Is this news important only to scholars of Dutch, philologists and linguists? “Magnificent,” responds Harm Beukers, professor in history of medicine.

The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal is a record-breaking piece of work. It required 134 years of work, from 1864 to 1998. It contains hundreds of thousands of entries with definitions of Dutch words and more than one and a half million quotes from sources from between 1500 and 1976. The dictionary was published in 686 parts collected in forty volumes. This makes it a very complete account of nearly five centuries of Dutch language history.

On the other hand, this also makes it a bulky and even unwieldy dictionary; it is not one any person would readily have on their bookshelves. A trip to the university library or another scientific library is required to consult it. This situation improved when the dictionary was published on CD-ROM in 2000. (An incomplete edition, up to the W, was already published in 1995.) However, this CD-ROM edition had its own disadvantages, certainly compared to the online availability soon to be realized.

Useful sources
Professor Beukers is very happy the WNT will soon be available on the internet. Up to now, he had to cycle to the university library to do research. “There was the cd-rom, of course,” he says, “but I just never got around to buying it. The biggest advantage is that one can now consult the dictionary while writing a paper.” Rob Visser, professor in history of the natural sciences [and no relative of mine, –Ruud], is also delighted. “I only used the WNT sporadically, but if it becomes more easily accessible, I will certainly consult it more often. The WNT uses sources that are not always obvious for my area of work.” Visser recalls a student who quickly found a list of sources in the WNT they could use for their research on evolution.

Magnifying glass
Marietje van der Schaar, a researcher at the university’s philosophy department, also makes frequent use of the WNT and–because she often writes in English–the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the English equivalent to the WNT. Van der Schaar: “It is wonderful that the WNT will be available online. I have the OED at home, but I can only read it with the magnifying glass that came with it. It is important for me to know how certain words were used in the past, and these dictionaries provide a lot of information on the development of words like kennen and weten. In modern English there is no distinction between these words; both are translated as to know. The OED tells me there was a distinction in the past: to ken and to wit.”

All words in the online WNT can be looked up using the original 1863 spelling rules or modern rules. It is also possible to look for parts of words, like suffixes and prefixes, for word categories, like interjections and conjunctions, or for terms used in the definitions, like all words that have the term plant or ship in their definition.

Information outside the dictionary
An important advantage of the online WNT over the CD-ROM edition is that links could be added to information outside the dictionary. For instance, all words that have been published so far in the Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands (Etymological Dictionary of the Dutch Language), with the most recent developments in etymological research, are coupled to their equivalents in the WNT. Further links are available to similar words in Afrikaans, to figures of plants and animals, and to dialect charts. The source list of the online WNT was completely revised: it contains a large number of new works, which also turned out to be used for the printed WNT. This new source list allowed many entries in the WNT to be dated more accurately.

Using the online WNT will be free of charge. After a one-time registration as a user, the dictionary can be consulted wherever and whenever one wants to.

The newsletter article also contains two pieces of text set apart from the main body. The first piece explains how the WNT came to be:

Historical dictionary
The WNT is a historical dictionary. For every word, it lists the grammatical characteristics, the origin, the original meaning, and other meanings that developed over time. The WNT also gives derivations and compound words and information concerning usage in expressions and proverbs. Of particular note is the fact that the descriptions are fully based on an independent collection of source material: almost ten thousand literary and non-literary sources with millions of quotes. However, the WNT is also a historical dictionary in another sense.

New spelling rules
Matthias de Vries and Lammert te Winkel, the driving forces behind the WNT, created a new set of spelling rules to be used in the dictionary. These rules are appropriately known nowadays as the De Vries and Te Winkel spelling. In 1863, Te Winkel published De grondbeginselen der Nederlandsche spelling. Ontwerp der spelling voor het aanstaande Nederlandsch Woordenboek (The foundations of the Dutch spelling. Design for the spelling rules for the upcoming Dictionary of the Dutch Language). These rules soon became very popular and were adopted in Belgium already on November 21, 1863. De Vries and Te Winkel published the Woordenlijst voor de spelling der Nederlandsche taal (List of words for the spelling rules in the Dutch language) in 1866 to be used by the common man. The entire WNT was written according to these rules, surviving two spelling reforms before the WNT was completed in 1998.

In order to finish before 2000, the board of the Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie (Institute for Dutch Lexicology), founded in 1967 and overseeing work on the WNT ever since, decided in 1976 that no words first used after 1921 would be added. Words like vacantiegeld and zappen are therefore absent.

The second additional bit of text compares the WNT to some other large dictionaries, but I’ll leave that out here, because for some reason my weblog refuses to display the table properly. Suffice it to say the WNT is of equal size to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the Deutsches Wörterbuch (DWB) by the Grimm brothers and the Dai Kan-Wa Jiten (DKWJ; a Chinese-Japenese dictionary) by Tetsuji Morohashi. It has been said the WNT is actually the world’s biggest dictionary; in terms of pages, that certainly seems to be true, but the OED contains more entries. As often with size comparisons, the winner depends on the exact definition of “biggest”.

3 thoughts on “World’s biggest dictionary goes online”

  1. Ha! Only the Dutch of the European nations would think to compare it to the DaiKan (and call it the Morohashi, as most of us Indo-European students do… until we have to call it the DaiKan to be understood by our Japanese profs).

    A frustrating thing with Morohashi and OED is running across words that don’t have entries. Which is more common with my experience in the many volumes of the Morohashi than I should like to have thought possible.

  2. hello! and hi ,id like to know iiiiiif the largest online dictionary
    any online nwesletters becausc i rellly love news letters ok

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