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Ross Scaife
Taking Postclassical Latin Online

by Jeff Worley & Robin Roenker

Scholars who focus on postclassical Latin—a term used broadly to describe Latin works written after 200 A.D. or so—face a daunting obstacle: reference works relating to this period are rare and hard to come by.

Photo of Ross Scaife (left) and Andrew GollanMost Latin grammars and dictionaries focus on classical Latin, such as that found in ancient works by Vergil and Livy. Standard Latin reference works tend to exclude Latin definitions, syntax and usages from medieval and Renaissance literature, while the few reference books that do include postclassical Latin are available only at the most well-stocked academic libraries.

Hoping to remedy this problem of limited access are Ross Scaife, a professor of classics, and Andrew Gollan, a research assistant funded by the Center for Computational Sciences. Scaife and Gollan plan to develop an online compendium of postclassical lexicographic resources for Latin that will compile and make available the current body of reference works related to this period, as well as allow scholars to draw upon their own expertise in expanding and enriching the content of the site.

"As Latin continued to be used for another 2,000 years after the classical period, new words continued to creep in, old words evolved new meanings, and sometimes there were modifications to standard syntactical issues," says Scaife. "Right now, it’s quite difficult to cope with issues like that if you're a scholar who doesn’t do this sort of work a lot. There's no obvious way to resolve issues of meaning."

To address that dilemma, Scaife's proposed online resource will give scholars a one-source site where they can trace the evolution of a Latin word's changing nuances over time, by geography, by genre or by author. They will be able to compare citations for a given term from all the available reference works and then follow links to the original Latin source texts themselves online. Scholars will eventually even be able to add their own definitions for terms or word usages they uncover that have not yet been documented in the existing reference works.

While the initial steps of developing the project—making existing postclassical reference works available online through PDF images and digitized text—are straightforward, the latter stages of the project, including developing highly specialized searching capabilities and establishing comprehensive and sophisticated links between resource works and source texts, will be much more computationally complex and require interdisciplinary support. Scaife and his team of collaborators will eventually tackle the challenging task of encoding and merging the texts via computational linguistics techniques so that the texts can be easily searched and manipulated by readers.

Scaife is perhaps most excited about the project's long-term collaborative potential, as scholars contribute their own content to the site. "We want to build into the system a way of drawing on the distributed intelligence of worldwide scholars so that we get a kind of self-perpetuating and self-improving network of material," Scaife says. "That's the cool part. In a way, the network is the project."

About Ross Scaife

Ross Scaife is widely known for his work on a number of electronic publication projects, including Diotima: Materials for the Study of Women and Gender in the Ancient World, the Suda On Line—an online Byzantine Lexicography, and The Stoa: A Consortium for Electronic Publication in the Humanities, an organization he founded. He came to UK in 1991 after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Texas.

Scaife Research Team

Jennifer Nelson, Andrew Gollan and William du Cassé, UK graduate students in classics