Feature of the month: Randle Cotgrave's French dictionary

In 2016 Senate House Library is commemorating the quartercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare. This year’s Features of the Month celebrate books published in the same year as Shakespeare’s first four folios: 1623, 1632, 1664 and 1685. This is the second book to feature from 1632.

A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues
Randle Cotgrave
London: A. Islip, 1632
A4d [Cotgrave] fol. SR

Like Shakespeare’s second folio of plays, this edition of Randle Cotgrave’s Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues is a second folio: in this instance, following a first folio of 1611, and succeeded by three further folios, each enlarging its predecessor in some way, in 1650, 1660, and 1673; Senate House Library possesses copies of all but the 1660 edition. By the end of the sixteenth century, England boasted three French-English dictionaries, in addition to others in which French could be found alongside classical languages. With more than 48,000 headwords and approximately one million words, Cotgrave’s dictionary was on a far larger scale than any of its predecessors. Its main sources are Jean Nicot’s Thresor de la langue françoyse (1606) and Claude Holyband’s Dictionarie French and English (1593); however, as Cotgrave’s friend J. L’Oiseau Tourval explains in his preface to the French reader of the volume, Cotgrave furthermore read all sorts of books, old and new, in all dialects, where he found words not heard of for hundreds of years and included them in his dictionary, to be used or disregarded as users saw fit.

Cotgrave’s dictionary provides the meaning of each French word, the gender of nouns, the formation of the feminine form of adjectives, and a collection of illustrative phrases, idioms and proverbs: much, indeed, as a large modern bilingual dictionary. It also includes proper names, and states when words are dialect, and of which part of France. Following the definitions which constitute the substance of the work are ten pages of ‘Briefe directions for such as desire to learne the French tongue’, describing pronunciation and grammar. The second edition is marked by the addition of a (much briefer) English-French dictionary by Robert Sherwood, a Londoner who taught French and English in London. This section is dependent on the earlier work, referring back to Cotgrave for the genders of nouns and the conjugations of verbs. It follows Cotgrave’s pattern of by ending with an explanation to help foreigners pronounce the English language (one page), and a list of English irregular verbs.

The work dominated French dictionaries through much of the seventeenth century and had a snowballing effect: dictionaries facilitated the reading of literature, which in turn influenced the spread of knowledge of the French language. Its value has extended far beyond then: as a resource for cultural historians, providing insight into Jacobean life; and, linguistically, as the seventh-most quoted source for earliest citations in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989).

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  • 3 May 2016

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