September 11, 2007

Introducing the Jones Thai-English Dictionary

I was intentionally a bit vague in the last post about what the nature of the "new Thai-English dictionary" I gave a presentation on at SEALS XVII last week. I was trying to pique your interest, you see.

Well, world, say hello to the Jones Thai-English Dictionary. I believe it to be the oldest Thai-English dictionary, perhaps dating from as early as the 1830s. So I was using "new" in the sense of "newly available for your perusal."

This online dictionary tool is still in an early stage, but it's an example of the type of tool I'd like to develop for other Thai dictionaries of the 19th Century (and beyond). When more of them are digitized, you can start to do really cool stuff (like easily comparing definitions in various dictionaries across the decades/centuries).

It's digitized from a manuscript of unknown provenance in the British Museum Library (donated in 1949 by one J. Hurst Hayes). I received a computer scan of the microfilmed manuscript, and I started digitizing it in 2006. Working on it as time allowed, I typed it in, first the headwords, and then the definitions. There are upwards of 10,000 entries. I typed everything exactly as it was written, so I also matched the archaic spelling with the modern spelling (though I'm not done yet--there's only around 50% coverage so far).

The dictionary is named for John Taylor Jones and his wife Eliza Grew Jones, because I believe they authored this dictionary. They were an American missionary couple who arrived in Siam in 1833. In the realm of Protestant missionaries to Siam, they were preceded by Carl Gutzlaff, who left in 1831 due to illness, but he had started work on a dictionary, and the Joneses are purported to have seen it to completion (this was before the advent of the Thai printing press). A dictionary is mentioned by the Joneses themselves in correspondence and diaries, and is also mentioned in the writings of contemporaries, but no copy is known to survive. For these and other reasons, my working theory is that this manuscript is a copy of the Jones dictionary.

Regardless of the origin of the manuscript, however, the point of this online tool is to enable more innovative and more effective research on the Thai language. The digitized text is linked to the original manuscript--click on any search result to see the corresponding page in DjVu format. You can see my annotations and comments, and you can go to the original document if you find anything curious about my transcription. Feel free to disagree. Please let me know where I've made errors.

You can expect this tool to become more sophisticated with time, but I hope that you'll agree that even in this relatively simple stage of development, it's at least a fascinating glimpse into Thailand's linguistic history, and at best a valuable tool for better understanding the Thai language, both then and now.

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