Johann Christoph Adelung, a forerunner of modern bilingual lexicography

Jacques François
University of Caen-Normandy

1. A forgotten German Enlightenment philosopher

Johann Christoph Adelung (1732–1806) was one of the main promoters of the Volksaufklärung (popular Enlightenment) in the vein of Christian Wolff, eager to synthetize what the broad cultivated audience of the second half of the 18th century could benefit from in the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Today the memory of his achievements has faded in Germany and he is scarcely known abroad, despite two memorable aspects of his prolific work: on the one hand his dictionaries, and on the other the Mithridates, a vast collection of the languages of the world known at the time, of which he was only able to complete the first volume, before Johann Severin Vater finished editing the next three volumes in 1817 with the participation of Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt (see François to appear).

2. Adelung, critical emulator of Samuel Johnson

Adelung was a connoisseur of the English language due to his intense activity as a translator.[1] He admired Samuel Johnson’s reference dictionary, the greatest of its kind in the mid-18th century, and held it up as the sole model against which he wished to measure his own work. He made observations to this effect in his “Small grammatical and critical dictionary of the English language for German people” (Kleines grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der englischen Sprache für die Deutschen, 1783) and in the third of his Philological essays published in English in 1798.

Adelung frontispieces

Fig.1 : Frontispieces of Adelung’s bilingual dictionary (ed. of 1796) and Three philological essays (1798)

3. The distinctive features of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, is in fact not the first work of this type (see Reddick 2006), but it is the first to rise to a level comparable to the great dictionaries of other languages published in several volumes in folio for a cultivated and wealthy audience, notably for Spanish the Tesoro of 1674, for French the Furetière of 1690 and the Dictionnaire de l’Académie in 1694 and for Italian the Compendio of the Accademia della Crusca in 1732. As A. Reddick points out:

C’est aussi le seul dictionnaire de la langue anglaise rédigé par un écrivain de premier plan. Les définitions de Johnson sont plus rigoureuses, surtout pour ce qui est des définitions multiples, soigneusement élaborées ; l’introduction de citations illustrant l’usage était une grande nouveauté dans la lexicographie anglaise ; et, comme cela a déjà été dit, la taille et le volume des deux in-folio annonçaient les prétentions de l’ouvrage, donnée importante pour sa commercialisation.[2]
(Reddick, 2006 : 228)

Unlike the dictionaries mentioned above, Johnson’s was not the product of a princely commission, nor was it the product of an illustrious academy. This represented a serious commercial disadvantage, since Johnson could only count on his fame as a writer and his title of “Bachelor honoris causa” which had just been awarded to him by the University of Oxford. But in the absence of any sponsor Johnson was able to place himself on an essentially descriptive foundation and to take into account only the usage of the great English-language writers. A. Reddick (2006: 228) considers that the originality of Johnson’s dictionary lies in its rigorous method of formulating multiple definitions and referring to the usage of undisputed great writers:

À chaque entrée il donnait les acceptions diverses des mots en se conformant à une méthode précise, et proposait des citations empruntées à des auteurs anglais reconnus pour illustrer la définition et ajouter à son autorité (…) la critique n’a pas assez insisté sur le fait que le dictionnaire de Johnson était le premier qui s’employait en grande mesure à définir les mots à partir de l’usage qu’en faisaient des auteurs anglophones.[3]

While Adelung agrees with Reddick’s later judgment on the first point, on the second, he sees Johnson’s merit as questionable, because after each definition Johnson – probably for lack of space – often only mentions the name of one or two authors, sometimes accompanied by a short title. Johnson in fact provides only a tiny number of quotations. So the reader has to content himself with very sketchy information, such as “Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc. used the word in this sense“.

"Heart" in Johnson's Dictionary

HEART. ʃ.saxon script
1. The muscle which by its contraction and dilation propels the blood through the course of circulation, and is therefore considered as the source of vital motion. Shakespeare.
2. The chief part ; the vital part. Bacon.
3. The inner part of any thing. Abbot.
4. Person ; character. Shakespeare.
5. Courage ; spirit. Clarendon.
6. Seat of love. Pope.
7. Affection ; inclination. Dryden.
8. Memory. South.
9. Good-will ; ardor of zeal. Clarend.
10. Passions ; anxiety ; concern. Shakes.
11. Secret thoughts ; recesses of the mind. Davies.
12. Disposition of mind Sidney.
13. A hard heart is cruelty Rowe.
14. To find in the HEART. No be not wholly averse. Sidney.
15. Secret meaning ; hidden intention Shakespeare.
16. Conscience ; sense of good and ill. Hooker.
17. Strength ; power. Bacon.
18. Utmost degree. Shakespeare.
20. It is much used in composition for mind, or affection.

Fig.2 : The entry HEART in Johnson’s English Dictionary (1755)

On the other hand, Johnson developed a vision of his role as educator of the English nation similar to that of Adelung by enriching his dictionary not only with a foreword setting out the methodological principles he intended to follow, but also with a history of the language and a grammar. In addition, like Adelung, he aimed at organizing the microstructure of the entries according to etymology (the primary meaning being that of the etymon) but, in Adelung’s estimation, with only moderate success. Finally, Reddick’s (2006 : 235) judgment on the language level that Johnson intended to describe applies also to Adelung’s Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der hochdeutschen Mundart (Grammatical and critical dictionary of the High German dialect), even if he tries to account for the oral use of cultivated speakers : “Le Dictionnaire est un regard que le dernier 18e siècle jette sur un héritage littéraire et linguistique déjà lointain”. But this limitation applies just as much to Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française, which treats the classical language as spanning over an excessively long and yet allegedly still synchronic time period.

4. Adelung’s critical essay : On the relative Merits and Demerits of Johnson’s English Dictionary (1798)[4]

In the (unpaginated) foreword to his dictionary, Johnson lists seven methodological principles which he has followed scrupulously and which he presents as innovative:

  1. It contains many words not to be found in any other [dictionary].
  2. Many barbarous terms and phrases by which other dictionaries may vitiate the style are rejected from this.
  3. The words are more correctly spelled, partly by attention to their etymology, and partly by observation of the practice of the best authors.
  4. The etymologies and derivations, whether from foreign languages or from native roots, are more diligently traced, and more distinctly noted.
  5. The senses of each word are more copiously enumerated, and more clearly explained.
  6. Many words occurring in the elder authors, such as Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, which had been hitherto omitted, are here carefully inserted; so that this book may serve as a glossary or expository index to the poetical writers.
  7. To the words, and to the different senses of each word, are subjoined from the large dictionary the names of those writers by whom they have been used; so that the reader who knows the different periods of the language, and the time of its authors, may judge of the elegance or prevalence of any word, or meaning of a word; and without recurring to other books, may know what are antiquated, what are unusual, and what are recommended by the best authority.

The core of Adelung’s essay on the “merits and demerits of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language” is a critical review of the goals and actual achievements of his predecessor, which he chose as his model. He refers to some of the criteria listed by Johnson, but ignores others and introduces new criteria. Adelung has identified deficiencies in the nomenclature of Johnson’s dictionary and in the microstructure of his lexicographical entries that he wishes to escape, because they are likely to be more visible in a compendium translated into German than in the original. He also proposes a series of points on which he has tried to achieve a better result (p. clxx).

Dictionary nomenclature

Adelung considers that, contrary to its own first criterion, the nomenclature of Johnson’s dictionary is “its weakest side” (p. clxxi). Admittedly, the dictionary captures the variety of the scientific lexicon and more broadly of written literature, yet it is “defective in social language, in the language of civil life and in the terms of arts and manufactures”. Adelung puts himself in the position of foreign learners by stressing the importance of such vocabularies, “for these are the specific cases, in which they have most frequent occasion for consulting a Dictionary”. In Johnson’s conception of the lexicographical object, the cultivated English language, whether literary, poetic or theological, constitutes a space set apart from the best society, and the dictionary is consulted mainly to find out which word is most appropriate in which social circumstance. In Adelung’s dictionary, however socially conservative, the notion of usage is much broader. It has an encyclopedic ambition, and it covers all the lexical skills and needs of a German bourgeoisie eager to negotiate with England. Therefore the nomenclature of the bilingual dictionary includes several thousand words that were missing in the original and which Adelung was able to translate on the basis of the size and diversity of its readings.

Language registers selected

On this point, Adelung congratulates Johnson and he resolves to approach these registers “with equal attention” and to point out “the most necessary of these distinctions by means of particular signs or characters” (a practice that was taken up again in the twentieth century, notably by Robert & Collins’ English-French dictionary).

Formal guidance on grammar, spelling and pronunciation

This third point goes further than Johnson’s third criterion, because observing the usage of prestigious authors is not enough to note explicitly for each word “to whatever class it belongs as part of speech” (p. clxxiii). However, Adelung acknowledges that Johnson treated this type of information properly, except for the distinction between long and short accented syllables (he gives as examples the length of blood as opposed to the brevity of room), an imperfection he remedies by introducing two subscript marks going respectively from left to right for blood and from right to left for room. This notation shows Adelung’s remarkable attention to detail.

Morphosemantic and diachronic information

On this point, Adelung does not spare his criticisms of Johnson, whom he describes as a “shallow etymologist” beyond the part of the English lexicon that clearly derives from Latin, French or Anglo-Saxon. But this reproach is double-edged, because the comparativists of the following generation did not refrain from directing the same criticism at Adelung himself. But Adelung adopts an eminently modern method of reorganizing the macrostructure, which only became common practice in lexicography around the second half of the 20th century: it involves dissociating a polysemous entry presumed to be a single lexeme because of the double impact of homophony and homography, but which can be recognized as multiple lexemes because of distinct etymons:

There are, in English, as well as in other languages, a great number of words, which are pronounced and written perfectly analogous to one another; although it can be proved, that they are derived from very different roots.
(p. clxxvi)

5. The two HEART entries compared between Johnson’s monolingual dictionary and Adelung’s bilingual dictionary

In order to measure the parallelisms and divergences between the two lexicographical undertakings, it is relevant to carefully compare two entries describing the same lemma. I choose the entry heart in Johnson’s dictionary (on the left in Table 2) and in Adelung’s (on the right in the same table). Johnson differentiates twenty senses, seven of which have no counterpart in Adelung’s entry. Adelung distinguishes sixteen senses, three of which have no equivalent in Johnson’s article. So there are about thirteen matching senses, but the formulations are sometimes only partially equivalent, so I have introduced continuous matching arrows if the formulations are more or less identical and discontinuous arrows if the formulations are sufficiently similar.

Adelung’s principle of sorting the senses clearly involves the following senses and rhetorical criteria (Table 1).

Entry Senses[5] Rhetorical criteria
1 the bodily organ…
and its image
➪ by formal analogy
2 the seat of life and affects ➪ by functional analogy
3–7 five affective and cognitive components associated with the heart ➪ by abstraction and specification
8 the core of the soul, secret cravings ➪ by analogy of arrangement
9 the memory see 3–7
10 noble part of a thing see 2
11 central part of a thing see 8
12–13 person admired or loved ➪ by metonymy
14 excellent quality see 2
15 highest abstraction see 3-7
16 idioms ➪ by freezing

Table 1 : Senses and rhetoric criteria in Adelung’s (1783) entry for heart

Leaving aside senses in either entry that have no matching sense in the other, the arrangement of the arrows reflects a disagreement between Adelung and Johnson on the relative order of certain senses. They agree at the top of the list (Johnson’s sense 1 corresponding partly to Adelung’s sense 1 and partly to sense 2) and at the bottom of the list (Johnson’s senses 17 and 18 corresponding to Adelung’s senses 14 and 15). But in the central part, Johnson’s senses 2, 3 and 4 match Adelung’s senses 10, 11 and 12, while Adelung’s senses 3, 4 and 5 match Johnson’s senses 5, 6 and 12.

After having introduced in 1 the heart as “source of the vital motion”, Johnson follows this direction by choosing as 2nd sense “the vital part”, as 3rd “the inner part” by generalization and as 4th sense “person; character” by extension. The assimilation of the heart to affective or cognitive functions is transferred to senses 5 to 12. In Adelung’s entry, these functions are listed immediately by specification from input 2, which evokes mood, dispositions, feelings, while “the noblest part”, “the central part” and “a person, considering his courage” are referred to below.

Neither order can reach perfection, since the polysemy of heart is “radial” in the terminology of G. Lakoff (1987) or proceeds “by radiation” in that of A. Darmesteter (1887). One can only complain, for instance, that Adelung’s sense 4 (inclination, love) is excessively distant from sense 13 (a beloved person) given that they are linked by an explicit metonymic relationship (cf. Table 2).

Johnson Adelung "heart"

Table 2 : Johnson’s (1745, left) and Adelung’s (1783, right) entries for HEART compared[6]

6. HEART vs. HERZ: Comparing the structure of the two entries in Adelung’s bilingual dictionary and in the dictionary “of the High German dialect”

One will certainly have noticed that Adelung mentions “Herz” in his bilingual entry on four occasions (senses 2, 3, 11, 13). This shows that Adelung also has a contrastive concern: he wants to highlight the uses of Eng. Heart, uses that are equivalent to those of Germ. Herz. But beyond these four hints, one can go further by comparing the HEART entry in his bilingual dictionary and the HERZ entry in his “Grammatical-critical dictionary of the High German dialect” (Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der hochdeutschen Mundart), published from 1774 onwards.

Heart (1783) vs Herz (1774sq)

Table 3 : Adelung’s entries HEART (1783, left) and HERZ (1794, right) in contrast

Firstly, it can be seen that the HERZ entry has a hierarchical microstructure, in contrast to the HEART entry, which is subdivided into 16 classes. The HERZ entry has a four-level hierarchy (noted respectively 1, 2, etc.; 2.1, 2.2, etc.; 2.4(a), 2.4(b), 2.4(c); and as subclasses of 2.4(b): 2.4(b)aa), …bb), …cc)), which is exceptional and remarkable for the time.

The comparison is therefore not very easy because some classes of the HEART entry may correspond either to classes or subclasses of the HERZ entry. The two entries are presented side by side in Table 3 with all definitions translated into English. Five arrows for correspondence between classes or subclasses are labelled from A to E.

  • Correspondence A: It is only partial, because the sense HEART_2 adds besides the cardiac organ its image, a meaning that should appear in the subclass HERZ_2 but that the microstructure of the entry does not explicitly reveal.
  • Correspondence B: Class HEART_3 (“mood/courage”) partially matches subclass HERZ_2.4 (“the human soul and its special abilities”), as indicated by the statement “and in German Herz” in HEART_3.
  • Correspondence C: The two classes HEART_5 (“willingness, goodwill”) and HEART_6 (“faculty of feeling”) together partially match the subclass HERZ_2.4(b) (“the inner sensations, the whole capacity for desire, the will in the wider mind”, apart from the complement “the mind”).
  • Correspondence D : Similarly the two classes HEART_10 (“the noblest, strongest, best part of sth”) and HEART_11 (“central part of a thing”) match the subclass HERZ_2.2 (“The innermost, the middlemost of a thing, in different cases”), as suggested by the mention “das Herz” in the definition of HEART_11.
  • Correspondence E: Finally the class HEART_13 (“A beloved person, informal speech, as in German mein Herz”) matches precisely the subclass HERZ_2.4(b)cc) (“… a person, especially in consideration of his sensibility and desire”).

7. Concluding Remarks

These correspondences leave out many of the fine distinctions in meaning in the two entries; they have only an illustrative value and go far beyond what Adelung had in mind when designing his two dictionaries. But what must be kept in mind is that Adelung certainly explored Johnson’s dictionary before he began publishing his dictionary of “the High German dialect”. He drew two important conclusions for his lexicographical project:

  • British English was more unified than German, and he himself could not record the lexical uses of German without selecting a particular dialect, which he believed was intended to appeal to other dialects in order to build a unified written language, and provide Anmerkungen (additional notes) to take account of the dialectal variants in Oberdeutsch (German from Bavaria, Württemberg and Austria) and Niederdeutsch (German from the northern German plains).
  • Furthermore, he realized that a single-level microstructure, as practiced by Johnson (who was ahead of the Académie Française dictionary of 1694, whose entries did not have numbered senses), did not allow for a proper account of how the polysemy of the most common words is organized in meanings and sub-meanings. He therefore promoted hierarchical lexicographical entries in his dictionary of German, but did not want to do the same in his bilingual dictionary, which was subtitled “vornehmlich aus dem größern englischen Werke des Hrn. Samuel Johnson, nach dessen vierten Ausgabe gezogen, und mit vielen Wörtern, Bedeutungen und Beyspielen vermehrt“.[7] He did not feel that he was damaging his mentor’s reputation by increasing the nomenclature and enriching the microstructure of the entries with refined meanings and real examples, but he backed away from the idea of revising the organization of the senses along the lines of his German dictionary.


ACADEMIA DELLA CRUSCA (1732) Compendio degli Accademici della Crusca. Florence.

ADELUNG Johann Christoph (1774), Versuch eines vollständigen grammatisch-kritischen Wörterbuches der Hochdeutschen Mundart, mit beständiger Vergleichung der übrigen Mundarten [An attempt at a complete grammatical-critical dictionary of the High German dialect, with constant comparison of the other dialects]. Leipzig: Breitkopf. The final edition was published in Vienna between 1793 and 1801.

_________ (1783), Kleines grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der englischen Sprache für die Deutschen. Leipzig.

_________ (1798), Essay third, On the relative merits and demerits of Johnson’s English Dictionary. In : Three Philological Essays, chiefly translated from the German.

_________ / VATER Johann Severin (1806-17), Mithridates oder allgemeine Sprachenkunde mit dem Vater Unser als Sprachprobe in bey nahe fünfhundert Sprachen und Mundarten, [Mithridates or general language study with the Our Father as a language sample in almost five hundred languages and dialects].

COVARRUVIAS OROZCO Sebastian de (1674), Tesoro de la lengua Castellana, o Española. Madrid.

DARMESTETER Arsène (1887), La Vie des mots étudiée dans leurs significations, Paris, Delagrave [reed. Paris, Champ Libre, 1979]

FRANÇOIS Jacques (submitted), Johann Christoph Adelung, linguiste des Lumières à la cour de Saxe.

FURETIÈRE Antoine (1690), Dictionnaire universel contenant généralement tous les mots françois, tant vieux que modernes, et les termes de toutes les sciences et des arts. Amsterdam.

JOHNSON Samuel (1755), Dictionary of the English Language. London.

LAKOFF George (1987), Women, fire, and dangerous things. What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

REDDICK Allen (2006), Le dictionnaire de la langue anglaise de Samuel Johnson (1755). Dix-huitième siècle 2006(1): 225-236.


[1] See for instance:

  • J. Williams, Ursprung, Wachsthum und Gegenwärtiger Zustand der Nordischen Reiche. The Origin, Growth and Present State of the Northern Kingdoms, translated from the English edition of J. Williams with corrections. Leipzig, 1779-81, 2 vols. in-octavo, and
  • Tindals und Sr More, Anmerkungen zu Rapins Geschichte von England. Translated from the English original (respectively n°22 and n°29 of the list of Adelung’s works compiled in the article named after him in the 1830 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica).

[2] “It is also the only dictionary of the English language written by a leading writer. Johnson’s definitions are more rigorous, especially the multiple, carefully crafted definitions; the introduction of quotations illustrating usage was a great novelty in English lexicography; and, as has already been said, the size and volume of the two folios heralded the book’s claims, an important factor in its marketing”.

[3] “In each entry he gave the various meanings of words according to a precise method, and provided quotations from well-known English authors to illustrate the definition and add to its authority … the criticism did not emphasize enough that Johnson’s dictionary was the first that did much of the work of defining words on the basis of the use of words by English-speaking authors”.

[4] The Three philological essays published in 1798 in London at Longman mentions as a subtitle “chiefly translated from German” without further ado.

[5] The original German definitions are shown in the right-hand column of table 2.

[6] 1. the heart both in the animal bodies and its image ; 2. the heart as the presumed seat of life, courage, inclinations, feelings, etc., hence so many figurative and proverbial sayings ; 3. courage, also in the German heart ; 4. inclination, love ; 5. the will, good will ; 6. the sentience ; 7. temperament, inclination ; 8. the interior of the mind, secret tendencies ; 9. [erroneously 7] the memory ; 10. the noblest, strongest, best part of something ; The middle part of something, the heart ; 12. A person, in consideration of his courage ; 13. A beloved person, in the confidence of speech, like the German, my heart… ; 14. strength, liveliness, fertility ; 15. The highest degree ; 16. for my heart: even if it costs me my life; likewise for my life gladly.

[7] “chiefly derived from the greater English works of Mr. Samuel Johnson, after his fourth edition, and multiplied with many words, meanings and examples”

How to cite this post

François, Jacques. Johann Christoph Adelung, a forerunner of modern bilingual lexicography. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, Article, History, Lexicography, Linguistics

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