Die teütsch Spraach: The first ‘true’ German dictionary from 1561

21st April 2021

Title: Die teütsch Spraach : Alle Wörter, Namen und Arten zü reden in hochteütscher Sprach, dem ABC nach ordenlich gestellt, unnd mit gütem Latein gantz fleissig unnd eigentlich vertolmetscht, dergleychen bisshär nie gesahen
Author: Josua Maaler
Publication Date: 1561
Shelfmark: I.10.4

This month’s Illuminating Magdalen article has a lexicographical focus! Printed way back in 1561, the thick tome pictured below (536 pages long) is one of the oldest German dictionaries in existence. A key part of German linguistic history, both its content and provenance make it an interesting and important part of the Old Library’s collection.

Figure 1: The Title Page

Figure 1: The title page


The dictionary was compiled by the Swiss lexicographer and bookbinder Josua Maaler (1529–1599), who wanted to create a German-language dictionary partly for humanist reasons. He believed that such a dictionary would raise the status of German and particularly Swiss German in society. His aims are reflected on the title-page pictured above. The German script is deliberately written first and followed by a Latin translation – reflecting the vernacular’s importance to Maaler and making the dictionary already unique in comparison to previous German dictionaries.

Figure 2: An example entry from the dictionary, organized alphabetically by the German

Figure 2: An example entry from the dictionary, organised alphabetically by the German


This uniqueness is reinforced when the dictionary is opened. In comparison to the earlier Dictionarium Latinogermanicum (1535) by Petrus Dasypodius (1495–1559), this dictionary is the first to focus exclusively on the German language. It is, therefore, organised alphabetically by the German, not by the Latin as was the case in previous dictionaries. Above, you can see this order in action, open at a particularly apt word for this time of year: der Frü[h]ling, or spring in English. As a result of this ordering, Jakob Grimm (1785-1863) described it as ‘das erste wahrhaft deutsche Wörterbuch’ [the first true German dictionary] in the prologue to his own monumental dictionary published in 1854 (Grimm: 1854, Band 1, xxi).

Figure 3: The Provenance Note

Figure 3: The provenance note


This book, though, is not only significant due to its content. Thanks to the inscription pictured above, we know a lot about the provenance of this volume. It reveals that it was donated to the library by John Harding (1562-1610), who was President of the College from 1607-1610. According to Macray (1894), Harding was ‘the donor of two books, Pictorius’ Thesaurus linguae teutonicae, 4⁰, Zurich 1561, and a folio German Bible printed at Wittemberg in 1584, which however, was not received until 1616, six years after his death’ (v.3, p.80).

As revealed in our previous post about the Lutheran Bible he donated, we know that Harding played an important role in the translation of the King James Bible. Although the translators worked from Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts for this Bible, this dictionary reinforces the idea that Harding consulted his Lutheran Bible as part of these efforts. As modern languages were not on the curriculum anywhere (and there was no tradition of modern languages as academic subjects that could be ‘taught’), almost everyone would have to teach themselves. If Harding wanted to read the Lutheran text and did not know any native German speakers, he would therefore have needed to purchase a dictionary to teach himself. This book suggests, therefore, that Harding felt that he needed to read the original German to understand how Luther translated his Bible, and to feed that into his own translation. It shows the erudition – and scholarly vigour – of the team that translated the King James Bible over 400 years ago!

Figure 4: The binding

Figure 4: The binding


This book has a beautiful binding, decorated with blind-tooled double-fillet borders and a decorative oval centrepiece framed by triple-fillet borders. This decorative oval design is typical of Oxford book-binding (see Pearson: 2000, p.77 and pp.103-106), so it is probable that Harding had it bound either in Oxford or at least in England. In the picture above, you can also see the remains of clasps on the upper board, together with staple holes for a book chain on the top right.

In today’s Google world, we perhaps take it for granted that we can instantly look up the translation of any word. This beautifully-bound early dictionary is an early step in the journey to make that world a reality. Its intriguing provenance and links to Magdalen’s Lutheran Bible only make it further worthy of study, revealing the intellectual efforts of college members over four centuries ago.

Written by William Shire, Assistant Librarian, Magdalen College.

Thanks must also be given to Dr David Rundle for his assistance in the research process for this post.

References and Further Reading:

Besch, W. (2008). Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung. 3. Teilband. Berlin ; Boston : De Gruyter Mouton.

Gloning, T., & Young, C. (2004). A history of the German language through texts. London; New York: Routledge.

Grimm, Jacob, Grimm, Wilhelm, Heyne, Moriz, Hildebrand, Rudolf, Lexer, Matthias, & Weigand, F. L. K. (1854). Deutsches Wörterbuch. Leipzig: S. Hirzel.

Macray, W., Bloxam, J., & Gunther, R. (1894). A register of the members of St. Mary Magdalen College, Oxford: From the foundation of the college. New series. London: Henry Frowde.

Pearson, D. & Ker, N. R. (Neil Ripley). (2000). Oxford bookbinding 1500-1640: including a supplement to Neil Ker’s Fragments of medieval manuscripts used as pastedowns in Oxford bindings. Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society.