John Kelly (1750-1809): Manx grammarian, lexicographer, and translator

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[With an added note on the monumental encyclopedic dictionary of Sinitic by Tetsuji Morohashi]

In researching our previous post on the revival of Manx (11/26/22), I learned about John Kelly, whose life and work on behalf of Manx studies is so moving that I believe it is worthwhile to introduce him to the readership of Language Log.  His heroic feats are truly mind-boggling.

Kelly was born at Douglas, Isle of Man, the only son of wine cooper and farmer William Kelly and his wife Alice Kewley. He was educated by Reverend Philip Moore in the Douglas Grammar School and later at St John's College, Cambridge, where he took his LL.D degree in 1799. He was ordained in 1776 and married Louisa Dolland in 1784.

While still a teenager, Kelly worked with his former teacher Moore in the venture with other Manx scholars and clergymen to translate the Bible into Manx. Kelly contributed with a revision of the books of the Old Testament, and also the transcription, and supervision of the printing of both Testaments at Whitehaven. The Bible had been divided into different volumes to make printing and transport easier.

The manuscript translation of the Old Testament from Deuteronomy to Job was nearly destroyed when the boat that Kelly was travelling on from Douglas to Whitehaven, struck rocks and became shipwrecked. Kelly only managed to save the manuscript by holding it for five hours above the waves, before being rescued.

The translation and publication of the Bible in Manx helped to fix Manx orthography and spelling.

While working on the translation of the Bible, Kelly began his work on developing a grammar for the Manx language as he found that he had nothing to aid him in his translation "except for the four Gospels". This culminated in his A Practical Grammar of the Ancient Gaelic or Language of the Isle of Man, usually called Manks published in 1804.

Kelly's major life's work was A Triglot Dictionary of the Celtic Language, as spoken in Man, Scotland, and Ireland, together with the English. During Kelly's life, the publication of this vocabulary was interrupted by a fire that destroyed the printed volumes, and part of the manuscript; it was eventually prepared and amended for an 1866 edition from the surviving two manuscripts by the Manx Society.


The fire that destroyed the printed volumes and part of the manuscript of Kelly's Triglot Dictionary reminded me of the doughty endeavor of Morohashi Tetsuji in creating the stupendous dictionary of Chinese that is of a scope and scale comparable to the Oxford English Dictionary:

The Dai Kan-Wa Jiten (大漢和辞典, "The Great Chinese–Japanese Dictionary") is a Japanese dictionary of kanji (Chinese characters) compiled by Tetsuji Morohashi. Remarkable for its comprehensiveness and size, Morohashi's dictionary contains over 50,000 character entries and 530,000 compound words. Haruo Shirane (2003:15) said: "This is the definitive dictionary of the Chinese characters and one of the great dictionaries of the world."

Tetsuji Morohashi was originally motivated to create a dictionary in 1917 when he went to China to study Chinese. Trying to look up words in the largest available Chinese dictionaries was frustrating; the Kangxi Zidian defines characters but not phrases, the Peiwen Yunfu lists phrases without definitions, and the Zhonghua Da Zidian had just been published. Morohashi's autobiography explains (Wilkinson 2000:74) that "he had to spend between a quarter and a third of his study time trying to find the meanings of words and phrases. This tedium he felt could be avoided if there were a dictionary that provided both citations and definitions." When Morohashi returned to Japan in 1919, he had 20 notebooks filled with Chinese vocabulary.

In 1925, Ippei Suzuki (鈴木 一平), president of the Taishukan publishing house, requested Morohashi to edit a comprehensive kanji dictionary of an unprecedented scale. In order to print this giant reference work, fonts for many rare characters had to be created, since none existed. The first volume was published in 1943, but the fire-bombing of Tokyo destroyed the printing plates and special fonts in 1945. After the war, Morohashi and his fellow editors reconstructed the dictionary from proofs. Due to a shortage of skilled craftsmen, Suzuki persuaded Mokichi Ishii (石井 茂吉), inventor of phototypesetting, to recreate the necessary fonts. The first volume was published in 1955 and the final index volume in 1960. Morohashi was awarded the Order of the Chrysanthemum in 1957 and the Order of Culture in 1967 for his contributions to sinology and lexicography. Taishukan published a vocabulary index in 1990 and a supplemental volume in 2000.


As a graduate student in Sinology, I venerated "Morohashi" for its precision and inclusiveness, but fumed over how hard it was to find entries in it.  So as not to open old wounds, perhaps some kind Language Log reader(s) could partially explain how that is done.


Selected readings

[h.t. Max Deeg]


  1. jhh said,

    November 29, 2022 @ 7:28 pm


  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 29, 2022 @ 9:42 pm

    From Jim Duncan:

    Manx and Cornish

    Thomas Pynchon mentions the Manx language in his novel V (and, I think, in some of his other works). In V, the participants in a party include “a lady plant pathologist, originally from the Isle of Man, who had the distinction of being the only Manx monoglot in the world and consequently spoke to no one”.

    You are familiar, I assume, with the legends that have grown up around Dolly Pentreath, who is said to have been one of the last really fluent native speakers of the Cornish language. She was famously foul-mouthed. Someone once told me that her last words (in Cornish) were “what is this f*cking English doctor saying?” After brief rummaging on the internet, I have not found any support for this story: most sources say that her last words were “my ny vynnav kewsel Sowsnek” [sometimes transliterated as “Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek”]: “I don’t want to speak English”.

  3. Jim Breen said,

    November 30, 2022 @ 1:21 am

    >> I venerated "Morohashi" for its precision and inclusiveness, but fumed over how hard it was to find entries in it. So as not to open old wounds, perhaps some kind Language Log reader(s) could partially explain how that is done.

    The Morohashi index numbers plus the volume/page numbers are in the Kanjidic database, which covers the 13,000+ kanji in the JIS standards. If you look up a kanji in any of the many apps or websites that use Kanjidic you can quickly find the Morohashi entry. For example, if you look up 麺 using radical+stroke-count, SKIP, Four Corners, etc. you'll see that it's #47827' and on page 936 in Volume 12.

    Check it out at: (you need to click on the "More kanji details" link".

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