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How many index file cards would be needed if every single mention of every word in Latin in every ancient document was each to be written on an index file card? And how many years would it take not only to write down every mention, but also to study the development of each individual word over its entire life?

The answer to these questions can be found deep in the Thesaurus of the Latin Language. The work is the world's largest Latin dictionary, and truly merits the label "thesaurus", with its original meaning of "treasury" or "storehouse".

A project for generations of researchers
karteilzettelBack in the summer of 1894, Eduard Wölfflin, then 53 years of age, began work on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. When Wölfflin described his project at that time, he seemed almost to be seeking to explore the hidden history of his ancestors. His intention, as he put it, was to present the biographies of individual words, their birth, union and procreation, their evolution in form and meaning, their mutual representation and substitution, and finally, their extinction.

For the endeavour, his employees created a card-index file for each word in the vocabulary. They then worked through every text ever written in the language and noted on an index card every point at which this word occurred. The cards were then placed in the relevant card-index files.

In the case of Latin, this entails analysis of a literary canon extending over 1,300 years (from the 7th century B.C. to 600 A.D.). The work of several generations of diligent researchers ultimately produced the treasure-trove of the world's largest monolingual Latin dictionary: over 10 million index cards, some of them completed by hand.

A team of 20 is currently working on analysing these index cards. Its members examine all instances of the key word with regard to textual constitution, orthography, prosody and grammatical form; above all however, with regard to what exactly the word means in each individual context, and how it is used in each case. From their findings, they formulate a dictionary entry.

To date, 164 fascicles have been produced as a result. The first appeared in 1900. The researchers have now reached the letters N and R. From the outset, the articles were published in printed form. Since 2009, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae has also been available from De Gruyter in the form of a database. It is of particular interest to classical scholars, linguists and students of the romance languages. Since the dictionary is entirely in Latin, however, it is difficult for lay people to use.