The English language is remarkable in two aspects: it is the most widespread language of the world, and it has the longest continuous record of written expression of any western vernacular. The Dictionary of Old English is documenting the history and defining the vocabulary of the first six centuries of this world language. The Dictionary of Old English complements the Middle English Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, all three dictionaries together providing a comprehensive catalogue of the English language.
The mapping of language in which we are engaged as lexicographers is the most basic form of research in the humanities, analogous to the charting of the periodic table of elements in the physical sciences or to gene-mapping in the life sciences. We are working with the primary units of our discipline -- words -- attempting to understand their component elements, their process of development, and to identify where they fit in the entire scheme of the English language.
The Dictionary of Old English, in making accessible the earliest records of the English language, benefits, first of all, scholars of the Middle Ages: literary scholars studying the earliest texts of our language and of the cognate Germanic languages; social historians interested, for example, in the various terms designating rank; economic historians interested in the nature and kinds of early taxation; theologians; philosophers; liturgists; etc. Moreover, the information made available by the Dictionary of Old English is useful to scholars and professionals outside the medieval period: to linguists seeking to work on a closed corpus of manageable size; to botanists interested in plant names; to engineers interested in early tools and building terms; to physicians interested in the history and methods of medicine; to lawyers basing arguments on the meaning of a legal term as it has changed over centuries.
Already the editors of the OED are drawing upon our research to update and correct the venerable OED as it undergoes major revision. As our conclusions and our corrections of previous assumptions filter down into the commercial dictionaries, every user of an English dictionary will eventually profit from the fundamental work of the Dictionary of Old English.
The 1985 Report to the Congress of the United States on the State of the Humanities by the American Council of Learned Societies described the significance and impact of the project in this way: "Using computer technology ... this project has made remarkable progress. Already, valuable publications (including a computerized corpus of the entire extant body of writing in Old English and a microfiche concordance) have appeared and have made this one of the monuments to scholarship in our century even before the primary work has begun to appear" (p. 191). Since 1986 we have published six of the twenty-two letters of the Old English alphabet: a, ae, b, c, d and e. During the course of this grant, we expect to publish the letter f (the third largest in the OE alphabet), to publish the letter g, and complete most of the entries for the letter h (the second largest in the OE alphabet). Each letter will increase our knowledge of the world's most universal language, illuminating the common linguistic heritage of all of us who speak English.