Settling the Language dictionary exhibition at UBC

Dictionaries have a curious place in our society as monuments to our languages. As they grow, change and become superseded, they stand as evidence of how individuals used words and constructed meaning. When I was asked to curate an exhibition of dictionaries from the collections of Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC to commemorate the Dictionary Society of North America conference recently held there, I wanted to bring out the tensions and debates between the dictionaries in the collection by focusing attention on the greatest hits of lexicography and the lesser-known items. As I combed through the collections, I began to think about the curious and contradictory ways that dictionaries both fix, or settle a language, but also in work with one another to move a language about, for good and ill, and encourage change. I called the exhibition Settling the Language to focus on this dual role that dictionaries serve.


Featuring items from the H. Rocke Robertson collection of dictionaries and other items at RBSC as old as 1490 and as new as 2015, I chose items that celebrate the many forms of French, English, and North American Indigenous language dictionaries that have developed over the centuries to define our languages. Ranging from early Latin and multilingual works, miniatures, and dialect dictionaries, to the grand dictionaries of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster and the vibrant work of Indigenous language revitalization, Settling the Language reflects on the fascinating tales dictionaries tell about our words, our ancestors, and ourselves.

The exhibit runs at UBC Rare Books and Special Collections until August 15. You can visit Monday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm on the ground floor of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre.

-by Grant Hurley