Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 12 • July 2004

Lexiculture and the EFL Dictionary

Anthony P. Cowie

Anthony P. Cowie has vast experience and expertise in teaching English as a Foreign Language, particularly in Nigeria, subsequently as a specialist with the British Council, and then as a Lecturer at Leeds University. He was involved in six ELT dictionary projects, including editorship of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (fourth edition) and joint compilation of the Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English in two volumes, and was Director of the OUP Lexical Research Unit at Leeds. He was later appointed Reader in Lexicography, and now serves on the Editorial Board of the New OED. He was until recently Editor of the International Journal of Lexicography and is author of English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners – a History (Oxford 1999).



As Jean Pruvost has argued convincingly in this stimulating account of Robert Galisson’s pioneering work on ‘lexiculture’, cultural aspects of meaning are a neglected element in standard dictionaries, and a much-needed one in dictionaries intended for foreign learners of a language. Less progress has admittedly been made among English-speaking than French-speaking scholars in elaborating a theory of lexiculture – an exception being Gabriele Stein’s invaluable article on ‘EFL dictionaries: meaning, culture and illustrations’ in Better Words (Exeter, 2002) – yet some noteworthy advances have been made since the early1990s in this area, and specifically in the development of the so-called ‘EFL cultural dictionary’. We now have the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, Encyclopedic Edition (1992) and the Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture (1992, 2nd edition, 1998), each based on the immediately preceding edition of the standard EFL work.

In both dictionaries, there are notes on various aspects of English culture. For example, in the Oxford Encyclopedic, there are ninety-four special ‘articles’ dealing with ‘class’, ‘crime’, ‘food’, ‘gardens’, ‘the royal family’, and so on. These topics are generally treated at some length, and with a wealth of lexicultural detail, such as for example guidance on how to order a pint of bitter beer! Here and there, too, one finds very precise information about the use of various routine formulae. For example, under ‘conventions’, the reader is told when he or she should use ‘please’, ‘excuse me’, ‘how do you do?’ and ‘that’s all right’.

Other places in the Oxford Encyclopedic in which cultural detail appears are the ‘mini-notes’: ‘short extra paragraphs giving information on the special connotations these words have for native speakers of English.’ Consider some of the detail in the mini-note for ‘tea’ – suggesting parallels with the small details of everyday life which clearly fascinate Galisson: ‘Tea also suggests comfort and warmth, and sitting down with “a nice cup of tea” is a common response to problems and worries.’

Corresponding, in the Longman work, to Oxford's mini-notes are a large number of so-called 'cultural notes'.  These deal with a wide range of topics, including religion, popular superstitions and social stereotypes, and are well set out for quick reference and learning purposes.

A noteworthy feature of the Longman dictionary is the space given over to cultural illustrations. Several pictures (e.g. the one for ‘yuppie, or Young Upwardly-Mobile Professional’) reflect in an entertaining way the connotative details appearing in the definition, which include: ‘In Britain, yuppies are seen as young people who earn a lot of money without necessarily working very hard, usu. on the financial markets in the city.’

Less then a hundred ‘mini-notes’, and about the same number of special articles – and this is just to speak of the Oxford Encyclopedic – do not amount to a great deal in a dictionary of 93,000 entries. However, the two dictionaries represent a notable step forward, both in identifying words and phrases of cultural interest and in devising effective methods of presenting them to the advanced learner. None the less, English-language dictionaries still have much to learn from the type of systematic exploration of culturally-rich items to be found in the research of Robert Galisson.


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