The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Guten Tag! Como vai? Parlez-vous français?

Spring is Conference Season for many academics, allowing us to travel far and wide for our academic and professional enrichment. Sometimes, we find ourselves traveling in places where the local language is not one of the ones we are most comfortable with. (Until someone invents a time machine, my relative fluency in classical Latin isn’t going to help me order dinner, is it?)

So what’s a traveling scholar to do? Today, one of the more common answers is probably “download a translation app for my smart phone.” However, before the predominance of smart phones, one might first have reached for a foreign language dictionary or phrasebook.

If you’ve ever walked around with a “pocket sized” Berlitz or Lonely Planet book of words and phrases in your travel bag, you’re really just continuing a tradition that has been going on for 400+ years.

While the Folger holds dictionaries in many different languages (and combinations of languages), of particular note is our collection of polyglot dictionaries. These seven- or eight- language “dictionaries” are more than basic Word X = Word Y kind of books. 1 This genre of book is based on Noël de Berlemont’s Flemish-French colloquies and dictionary, of which the earliest surviving copy is a 1536 Antwerp edition at Harvard

I’ll use STC 1432, the only English-published book of this type that we have, as my guide (so to speak). This book was printed in London in 1639 for Michael Sparke, Junior, and has both English and Latin title pages:

Title page in English
title page in English
title page in Latin
and in Latin


The anonymous “To the Reader,” dated July 6, 1638, explains that “in so much, that since they have beene published both in England, and in the Low countries, I must tell you in your eare not altogether so perfect, especially in the English and the Latine being wanting: I thought it a matter of good importance, to salve up this deformity, and to supply this defect” (sig. A4r).

After this address to the reader, the format of the book changes, into what it will be for the remainder of the volume: eight parallel columns, one for each language, beginning with a second To the Reader and a Table of Contents.

Multilingual To the Reader
the multilingual address to the reader
Table of Contents
beginning of the English table of contents (with Italian to the left, Portuguese to the right)

The first part of the book is divided up into eight chapters, in the form of dialogs covering a variety of topics of use to the early modern traveler. “A dinner of ten persons, and containeth many common speeches” is followed by “to buy and sell” and “to demand ones debts.” Chapter four—“to aske the way, with other familiar communications”—and chapter five—“common talke being in the Inne”—are quickly followed by “communication at uprising” (uprising as in waking up at the start of the day, not as in overthrowing a government!). Finally, the last two chapters cover “proposes of merchandise” and “to learn to indite letters, or missives, obligations, quittances, and contracts,” making it clear that this book was intended not only for use in oral communication, but written as well.

The dialogs in each section are hilariously familiar to anyone who has taken a foreign language in middle or high school (at least in the United States—I am not familiar enough with foreign language texts in other countries to know whether hokey dialog is a universal phenomenon).

dinner conversation
beginning of the dreaded dinner conversation
Late from school
“Where have you beene? For you have been long out of the schoole, that know I well: I will tell your master.” “Pardon me, I come even now from the schoole, I knew not that it was so late, I have tarryed no where.”

The second part of the book “conteyneth many single words serving to daily communication, set in order of the A.B.C.”—a more traditional “dictionary.” It also contains useful collections of words in the eight languages, such as numbers:

knowing your numbers


And days of the week:

days of the week
and your days


A brief word about the mise-en-page of this book: There certainly seems to have been some conscious thought put into the layout and readability of text. In the anonymous “To the Reader,” the author says “I have also taken care that they should be handsomely printed, and rendred into divers Languages, and by this meanes I have gotten much credit and profit” (sig. A4r).

The consistent use of three different fonts across the whole of the book helps a reader easily distinguish between languages, as do the vertical dividing lines between columns. Horizontal lines clearly mark the deliniation between sections, as seen here:

Chapter 2 beginning

And when there are, in effect, multiple choices within part of a dialog (usually showing variations in how one would address different people), curly braces are used to good effect:

curly braces

When we show this book, or one of the similar ones, to visitors, I usually joke that they’re about the size of a smart phone. When I had this one out to take the photos for this post, I became curious and measured. Turns out, I was pretty darn close:

Apple iPhone 6+ = 15.8cm x 7.8cm x 0.7cm
Folger STC 1432 = 14.5cm x 9cm x 2cm
Samsung Galaxy 6S = 14.3cm x 7cm x 0.7cm
Apple iPhone 6 = 13.8cm x 6.7cm x 0.7cm 2

I guess “pocket sized” (which really probably means “hand-held-size”) is one of those constant things!

This book, and others like it, were clearly intended for active use. As the title page says, “A Booke very necessary for all those that Studie these Tongues, either at home or abroad. Now perfected and made fit for Travellers, young merchants and sea-men, especially those that desire to attaine to the use of these Tongues.”

  1. The seven languages typically included are Latin, French, Flemish, German, Spanish, Italian, and English; in eight-language guides, Portuguese is added.
  2. measurements of the phones taken from the Apple and Samsung websites


  • This is fascinating; many thanks for it. I like your phrase “hokey dialogue”; I’ve often had the same thought about the odd dialogue in John Florio’s various Worlds of Words. If only there were a way to know if these bits were hokey or real. Has this book been digitised? Are images available?

    • Thank you! Yes, those stilted bits of dialog are so fascinating (in a train wreck sort of way). Our copy has not been digitized, but the BL’s copy is in EEBO.

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