Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 11 • July 2003

O brave new worldictionaries
Ilan J. Kernerman

       Miranda                                O, wonder !
       How many goodly creatures are there here !
       How beauteous mankind is !   O brave new world,
       That has such people in ’t !
       Prospero                            ‘T is new to thee.
       (W. Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V. Scene I.)

When I began working in dictionaries in the early 1990s, our prime concern was the advent of English as a lingua franca—ELF (also here by Levine)—and its forthcoming consequences, for everyone to now learn and use worldwide, in hoped-for equilibrium with their native language. This trend has indeed evolved, with critical impacts and interactions of various sorts.

Meantime, while we were snoozing, within that arguable globalization process—disseminating communication and information, grinding all into ubiquitous uniformity and mediocrity—other languages have also been awakening to each other and to themselves. Although ELF is champion—simultaneously and complementarily—it has become necessary and easier to create dictionaries for unorthodox language pairs, as well as to reach and explore—and sometimes even safeguard and enhance—any language still spoken.

With growing direct contact between languages not involving English, there are more trilingual and multilingual persons who want bilingual dictionaries without English, or dictionaries with two or more languages and ELF as an underlying bridge. Their quality might be painstaking to start with, but improvement usually follows suit. One way or another, soon you will be able to get any kind of dictionary, and via modern magic—be it wi-fi, broadband, cellphone—virtually anyhow, anywhere, anytime.

Some forecasts—like teasingly or skeptically by Esposito—warn against the ill effects of such bliss on the traditional business of dictionary making. Yet, life forever intermingles so-called good with bad, bad with good, counter-running contradictions in cohabitation, bringing all together and centralizing, whilst breaking farther apart into atoms, quarks, and who knows what next. So, big feed on small, the small disappear, yet big transform too. Giants come and go, while little men and women bear on. Change is—as Prospero might say—“such stuff as dreams are made of”. You can tickle the Establishment, but the Establishment never goes away; its characters may be replaced but the roles remain.

Dictionaries pertain to civilized society, with an aim to confine the lawless jungle into order and fairness. How sad when they succumb to this very same jungle law, such as the recent change in Random House, which meant a mortal blow and terrible loss. On the other hand, I cannot lament the fate awaiting—according to Esposito—whichever legacy dictionary publisher whose so-called quality is undermined by a big name. The defamed Microsoft dictionaries might—eventually, if not yet—not be worse than theirs.

Sadly, established brand names are often something to beware of (so no surprise if sacred-cow slaughter becomes a global sport). When their originality has evaporated long ago, big names are liable to get fat and preoccupied with self-preservation and enforcing monopoly, then impede the advance of new spirits whom they copy. That this seems not a trait of dictionaries, but of humankind.


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