Legacies of Hepburn’s First Dictionary of Japanese, 1867

From: American Missionaries, Christian Oyatoi, and Japan 1859–73, by Hamish Ion (UBC Press, 2009), pp. 80-81:

[In 1866] Hepburn‘s dictionary was being printed at a rate of 6 pages a day, with nearly 250 pages of the first part of Japanese to English – out of a total of 600 pages – finished. Hepburn was now writing out a second part to the dictionary of English to Japanese (something he had not previously contemplated), which would add approximately another 300 pages. He had a deadline of 1 June to have it completed. It was an expensive business, costing two dollars a page for composition alone, and even though Walsh had agreed to cover any losses, Hepburn was obliged to pay him back all monies from sales until the debt was cancelled. There was going to be no immediate financial benefit to Hepburn from all his work.

Surprisingly, the dictionary was finished ahead of schedule, and Hepburn was back in healthy Yokohama by late May 1867 and able to send off a copy to the mission library back home. Although Hepburn was discounting the early work of his friend Brown in claiming his was the first dictionary, it was an immense achievement, far surpassing any nineteenth-century rival. Yet, the dictionary had its limitations for those learning Japanese. Interestingly, in early 1870, Christopher Carrothers, a new Presbyterian missionary then learning Japanese, wrote that Hoffman’s Japanese grammar was the best assistant for the written language: “Dr. Brown’s Grammar and Dr. Hepburn’s Dictionary are more adapted to the Colloquial. Hoffman is soon to issue a Japanese Dictionary for which we are anxiously waiting. Carrothers was referring to J.J. Hoffman, a German linguist who learnt Chinese, Japanese, and Korean in Europe and in 1868 produced a Japanese grammar in Dutch and English. Even though Hepburn’s dictionary might have been more suited for those using colloquial speech than wanting to acquire the written language, it remains Hepburn’s greatest contribution to opening Japan, not only to missionaries but also to the English-speaking world. It should not be forgotten that Hepburn was helped by the work of other Western scholars who had attempted Chinese or Japanese grammars and dictionaries before him, including W.H. Medhurst, Karl Gutzlaff, and S.W. Williams among China missionaries, and Liggins, Brown, and Hoffman when it came to Japan and Europe. He also benefited from the assistance of Kishida GinkĊ, who had been with Hepburn in Kanagawa and accompanied him to Shanghai. In September 1872, the Japan Weekly Mail noted that the second edition of the dictionary “is a fresh encouragement to foreigners in this country to pursue the study of the Japanese language, and to the Japanese it will afford invaluable assistance in the study of ours.” The newspaper predicted that its print run of three thousand would be quickly sold out. It was close to a century later – in the early 1960s with the publication of the Nelson dictionary – before another American missionary produced a dictionary that would have a similar profound impact on those learning Japanese. The Hepburn system of romanization of Japanese, which the earlier dictionary first introduced and the Nelson dictionary used, remains the standard system of romanization.

The dictionary was typeset and printed in Shanghai, where it required “making copper matrices and casting of new Japanese as well as specialized English type, so the actual printing was moving at a snail’s pace” (p. 79).

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1 Comment

Filed under anglosphere, language, publishing, religion, scholarship, U.S.

One response to “Legacies of Hepburn’s First Dictionary of Japanese, 1867

  1. I posted this at LH, and learned from the ensuing comment thread that the p of Hepburn is silent in UK English (and properly so, since it’s unetymological).

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