Imagine trying to learn a language without a dictionary… or without anyone who knows both languages to help you translate! This was the challenge faced by explorers and conquistadors as they fanned out across the world in the Age of Discovery from the early 1400s.
The Portuguese, then the Spanish and then Britain set about discovering new worlds, and trading with them, or conquering them and bringing their treasures back to Europe. As they reached out to trade and conquer they also brought their languages, and learned the languages of these new countries to communicate.
For centuries trade with China had happened along the “Silk Road”, connecting China overland through Persia (Iran), Turkey and across to Europe. Chinese products and spices travelled from one village to the next and due to the distance people rarely travelled the length of the route – so you only needed to know the language of the next region or tribe.
Once the Europeans started to travel directly to the Far East they needed to learn Chinese to negotiate directly with the source. Japan, which had been careful to stay hidden behind the Chinese mainland was a land of mystery as there was little history of trading. So, how to communicate with the unknown people?
Once you have a good dictionary, it’s much easier to communicate, and to teach the language to others. Jesuit priests published the first Japanese/ Portuguese dictionary – the Nippo Jisho – in 1603. Incredibly it contained over 32,000 Japanese words translated into Japanese – the results of many years’ hard scholarship by the Jesuits.
Imagine those early scholars, living in Japan, undertaking the same process that Dr Johnson went through with the first English dictionary, but in another language. Seeking out words and meaning, putting them in order, refining pronunciation and definitions, and perfecting the work – only for the Japanese to expel all missionaries in 1610.
An English-Japanese dictionary had to wait till the 19th Century, and the Portuguese empire was long gone by then. Nonetheless, the dictionary lives on and is used by language researchers in our era to study the Japanese language in the 16th Century. As language learners we salute the dictionary writers, who were language trailblazers for us!