On readers/chrestomathies: what’s the best kind of arrangement?   10 comments

I have spoken here before of my love of chrestomathies, with which especially earlier decades and centuries were perhaps fuller than more recent times. (I don’t know how old the word “chrestomathia” and its forms in different languages is, but the earliest use in English that the OED gives is only from 1832. We may note that, at least in English, the word has been extended to refer not only to books useful for learning another language, but simply to a collection of passages by a specific author, as in A Mencken Chrestomathy.) Chrestomathies may — and I really do not know — strike hardcore adherents to the latest and greatest advice of foreign language pedagogy as quaint and sorely outdated, my own view is that readers along these lines — text selections, vocabulary, more or less notes on points of grammar — can be of palpable value to students of less commonly taught languages, especially for those studying without regular recourse to a teacher. Since I’m talking about reading texts, I have in mind mainly written language and the preparation of students for reading, but that does not, of course, exclude speaking and hearing: those activities are just not the focus.

I have gone through seventy-one chrestomathies from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries in several languages (Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Old Persian, Middle Persian, Old English, Middle English, Middle High German, Latin, Greek, Akkadian, Sumerian, Ugaritic, Aramaic dialects, &c.). The data (not absolutely complete) is available in this file: chrestomathy_data. By far the commonest arrangement is to have all the texts of the chrestomathy together, with or without grammatical or historical annotations, and then the glossary separately, and in alphabetical order, at the end of the book (or in another volume). Notable exceptions to this rule are some volumes in Brill’s old Semitic Study Series, Clyde Pharr’s Aeneid reader, and the JACT’s Greek Anthology, which contain a more or less comprehensive running vocabulary either on the page (the last two) or separately from the text (the Brill series). Some chrestomathies have no notes or vocabulary. These can be useful for languages that have hard-to-access texts editions or when the editor wants to include hitherto unpublished texts, but the addition of lexical and grammatical helps would even in those cases add definite value to the work for students.

In addition to these printed chrestomathies, there are some similar electronic publications, such as those at Early Indo-European Online from The University of Texas at Austin, which give a few reading texts for a number of IE languages: the texts are broken down into lines, each word is immediately glossed, and an ET is supplied, with a full separate glossary for each language.

From a Greek reader I have been putting together off and on.

From a Greek reader I have been putting together off and on.

Over the years, I have made chrestomathy texts in various languages, either for myself or for other students, and more are in the works. (Most are unpublished, but here is one for an Arabic text from a few years ago.) I have used different formats for text, notes, and vocabulary, and I’m still not decided on what the best arrangement is.

This little post is not a full disquisition on the subject of chrestomathies. I just want to pose a question about the vocabulary items supplied to a given text in a chrestomathy: should defined words be in the form of a running vocabulary, perhaps on the page facing the text or directly below the text, or should all of the vocabulary be gathered together at the end like a conventional glossary or lexicon? What do you think, dear and learned readers?

10 responses to “On readers/chrestomathies: what’s the best kind of arrangement?

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  1. Very interesting. A very beautiful Greek text in the image.

    Alexander Zavisa von Schlauter
  2. I would prefer the vocabulary directly below the text. And another one, a dictionary, at the end, which is also very often useful while using a chrestomathy.

    Alexander Zavisa von Schlauter
  3. It seems to me that the different formats imply different ends.
    A running vocabulary on the same or facing page would allow for quick perusal of unfamiliar texts quite easily, and for exposure to unfamiliar vocabulary. Whereas the glossary would seem more useful for forcing more novice students to memorize and recall the vocabulary. I think that there is something about the keeping the definitions at a distance from the text that aids in the incorporation of them into memory.

    • Thanks, Ryan. You’re right. I wonder if a compromise might be best: text and the vocabulary that is not common listed on the same page, then have all the words also at the end, in regular lexical arrangement, and the latter can then also be given (without definition) classified by part of speech. To me, at least, it’s good for readers to keep up their textual momentum by not having to go to far away to find a word (or form), even on a first or second reading.

      • Adam, I agree that the notes should interrupt the reading as little as possible. The best format that I have found puts new or troublesome words in the outer margins right next to the text, not at the bottom and not on a different page. This mimics what we usually do when we annotate a text ourselves, and it’s what we see the medieval and renaissance readers/annotaters doing most often too. Then the fuller glossary too at the back is good. Thanks for bringing up a great topic!

        Diane Warne Anderson
      • Annotators! Autocorrect really gave me a hard time with that one!

        Diane Warne Anderson
  4. I wonder if a compromise might be best: text and the vocabulary that is not common listed on the same page, then have all the words also at the end, in regular lexical arrangement, and the latter can then also be given (without definition) classified by part of speech.

    This makes sense to me; as a fellow lover of chrestomathies, I definitely want a vocabulary at the end, but difficult words explained right there on the page make for an easier read.

    It is indeed a great topic!

    • Thanks for stopping by and for the comment, languagehat! You saw my example with Greek above (with words and forms that might be a little troubling even to novice readers), but I may soon try to put some of my Georgian materials into an analogous format.

  5. Thanks, Diane! I’ll think more on glosses, at least some, to the side of the text. Typographically it’s a little more complicated, but it can be done. And the space is more limited, and so there’s room for fewer words, than below or on the facing page, but it is about as immediate as you can get.

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