Sebastian de Covarrubias Horozco: The Treasury of Castilian

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The world’s oldest dictionary predates back to 2300 BC with bilingual wordlists of Sumerian-Akkadian discovered in Elba (modern Syria). But it was not until 128, The Catholicon by Johannes Balbus, which followed a particular set of rules or a semantic (meaning), having large grammatical work with the alphabetical lexicon. This dictionary was widely adopted and served as a basis for several bilingual dictionaries and was one of the earliest books to be printed in 1406.

Many of the dictionaries up until the 17th century were multilingual, but the credit for the world’s first monolingual dictionary goes to Sebastián Covarrubias’ Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (Treasury of Castilian or Spanish Language), written in the romance language and published in Madrid in 1611.

Sebastián Covarrubias was born in 1539 at Toledo, a city with is situated 70km to the south of Madrid in Spain. He was a lexicographer, a cryptographer and a chaplain in the court of King Phillip II, canon of the cathedral of Cuenca and a Spanish Writer.

A lexicographer is a person who studies, analyse and helps in describing the meanings and the way the lexicons (vocabularies) are to be used in creating parts of a dictionary and how these components are linked, so that there is no ambiguity or misunderstandings when someone uses the language. A cryptographer is a person who can encrypt or decrypt a document, this means that any document or works that have to be protected or kept secured from falling into the wrong hands. A person with the knowledge of cryptography and a key can decode and reveal the contents of a document.

He began his most notable project Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española in the spring of 1605, when he was 66 years old. It took him three years to complete his project over the span of which he travelled to Valencia and Cuenca. His main intention was to trace the origins of the Castilians and model it etymologically in his dictionary, modelled on the works of Isidore of Seville named Etymologiae. His major interest was to connect the Spanish language to Hebrew. Covarrubias was much aware of the works of his contemporaries. His aim was to honour his nation by elegantly giving foreigners a sense of the Spanish Language.

Prior to the establishment of the Spanish Academy, spelling reflected the instability of written Spanish, which was evident form Covarrubias’ work. However, he preferred to spell the words phonetically. Most of the entries made in the book are between 10 and 20 lines, but there are inconsistencies in the length, where some of them are only of a few lines, while a few others span up to as much as eight pages. Some of the words that had multiple meanings were sometimes put under the same entries, and separated in to different entries the other.

This project that spanned for three years, beginning in the spring of 1605, got its initial print run in 1611 and produced just 1000 copies, and it was not reprinted until 1674, with a new edition having 326 new entries mainly of encyclopaedic information. Covarrubias achieved greater recognition after the founding of the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) in 1713, which relied on the treasury for its own authoritative dictionary. He was a major influence to the other lexicographers who relied on his contents for their own works. Covarrubias lost his life on 1613, only two years after the publication of his dictionary written in the romance language.

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