Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 16 • July 2008
Thierry Fontenelle (ed.)
Practical Lexicography, A Reader
ISBN 978-0-19-929233-2 (hardbound)
ISBN 978-0-19-929224-9 (paperback)
In the 20 years that I worked for Van Dale,
a Dutch publishing house specialised in lexicography, I regularly met people
who were not linguists, but who nonetheless showed an interest in the dictionary
phenomenon. Once, we received a letter from a user of our comprehensive
English-Dutch dictionary who complained that the – in his opinion rather
common - word is was not included. He felt disappointed about this
lacuna in his expensive and respectable dictionary. It’s easy to respond with
disdain to such criticism, but I too have sometimes sought in vain for words
in French, English and Spanish dictionaries. Some of these may well have been
irregular verb conjugations that I did not recognize as such. If one fails to
connect an unfamiliar inflected form with the infinitive, it is difficult to
look up the word in its alphabetical place
[in printed books], and the meaning will remain obscure.
Including only the infinitive of a verb as a
keyword in a dictionary is an efficient, space-saving convention in
traditional lexicography, but it is by no means user-friendly. As far as I am
concerned, one of the blessings of consulting dictionaries on a computer is
that looking-up is, will immediately show the entry be (and in
French va and ira will lead to aller).
But not only to disappointed users have I explained lexicographic conventions. There are quite a few non-linguists around who want to know how to bring about a dictionary. Sometimes life itself creates a need for a dictionary that does not already exist. And sometimes individuals decide to go and put it together themselves. Such people encounter all kinds of practical questions.
I remember the owner of a transport company
who saw opportunities in
All these people sought practical advice and they turned to a specialized publishing house for help. That is how I came into contact with them. Some of their many questions were:
· Under which entry keyword do I place fixed phrases and idiomatic expressions?
· Which percentage of the words begins with A, with B, and so on?
· What does the blueprint of an empty dictionary look like? Which building blocks are universal and essential?
· What are the typographical conventions, such as the use of bold and italics?
· Where can I find information on tools/software to build a dictionary with?
· What are the conventions for the clustering of words derived from the same base (for example active, activist, activism, activity, activate)?
I would have liked to be able to refer them to Lexicography for dummies, which no doubt would have had the answers to such questions. However, this title was not available then, and to my knowledge is still not. (For lack of it, I usually referred to the English edition of Bo Svensén’s Handbok i lexikografi or Sidney Landau’s Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography.)
With potential users such as those described
above in mind, I looked at Practical
Lexicography, A Reader compiled and introduced by Thierry Fontenelle and
recently published by Oxford University Press in the series Oxford Linguistics.
It immediately became clear to me that this title aims at a completely different user group. There is a deep gap between the basic practical questions of lay persons who pursue their first steps on the path of lexicography, and what the academic world holds for practical. Some of the questions quoted above are touched upon in the very first contribution by Samuel Johnson, written in 1747. The other twenty one articles are of no help for those who need basic practical assistance.
This observation is by no means a
disqualification of the book. It probably just illustrates the polysemy of
the word practical (see illustration). I hoped for a practical book in
sense no. 2. It turned out to be practical in sense no. 1.
Lexicography offers fascinating reading for people like me, who feel at home on
lexicographical territory. The great merit of the editor, Thierry Fontenelle,
is that he compiled a reader’s digest from the huge mountain of
publications in congress proceedings, in magazines and in books. He divided
the field into twelve parts: I Metalexicography, Macrostructure, and the
Contribution of Linguistic Theory; II On Corpus Design; III On
Lexicographical Evidence; IV On Word Senses and Polysemy; V On Collocations,
Idioms, and Dictionaries; VI On Definitions; VII On Examples;
For each part, Fontenelle selected one or several articles – all of them published before – that thoroughly discuss the subject. All chapters are written by people who practice or practiced the lexicographical craft. In that sense, the title of the book is well chosen; no academic theory but results of research and thought by professionals with practical experience in dictionary making.
For someone like me there is every reason to be grateful to the compiler. All too often issues of the International Journal of Lexicography remained unread, all too often congress bundles landed on the bookshelf too soon. For those who work in commercial lexicography, an excuse for not reading specialist literature is always available. After all, we are in meetings all the time, busy with planning, struggling with tight budgets and timetables. If someone takes the trouble to pack the most relevant lexicographic baggage in one single volume, there is every reason for gratitude. Since Thierry Fontenelle looks beyond the horizon, with his experience as an academic researcher at the University of Liège, as former president of Euralex and as program manager at Microsoft Natural Language Group, his selection is hardly for me to criticize. I can report that from my experience as lexicographer and publisher I have the impression that all areas are being covered and that his choice of authors is excellent.
up to, or out of
Because the average age of the articles is rather high, there is also a risk that important recent developments are not mentioned at all. Nothing is said for example about what I will call Internet lexicography. The size and reputation that the Internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia has acquired implies that its lexicographic counterpart – Wiktionary – needs to be mentioned in a volume like Practical Lexicography. Wiktionary claims to have more than 750,000 entries with an English definition, there are more than 55,000 registered users and since it was launched there were more than 4 million editorial actions. Maybe its quality is disputable, but the fact that some of the constraints of traditional commercial lexicography do not seem to be applicable to this form of large scale democratic lexicography makes it interesting enough to deserve a place in a recent book about the field.
A related phenomenon is what I will call the online community dictionary. Examples include the online bilingual dictionaries for African languages to and from English, compiled within the framework of Simultaneous Feedback, as the developer calls it. Such developments are likely to influence the way dictionaries are being compiled and consulted.
Non-natives read English too
With the people I referred to at the beginning of this text in mind, I would like to make a final critical comment. But in all honesty, I am also talking about myself. Maybe it is less a criticism than an observation and it is by no means limited to the field of lexicography. It regards every area in which the dominant publication language is English.
For users of English as a foreign language,
native speakers can be the grindstones on which we sharpen our competence in
English. But in situations where we need all our concentration to follow a
line of thought, or understand a clever reasoning, the use of flowery
language and infrequent idioms, are obstructions on the road of
understanding. For example, an elaboration on the subtle nuances in meaning
and use of an English verb requires a far greater effort by a non-native than
by a native speaker of English. We, foreigners, have to make a double effort:
decode a text in a foreign language, and understand the complexities in a
language that is not our own.
And so I am faced with the following dilemma. May I discourage learned and lettered authors to write in the full wealth of their mother tongue? I definitely would not mind if they showed some awareness to the limitations in the competence of the English language of foreign lexicographers. If learner’s dictionaries restrict their defining vocabulary for the benefit of non-native users, maybe authors who write for an international audience could make a similar effort.
As an example of what I mean, I quote one sentence: “There is no dearth of interesting and perspicacious commentaries on this aspect of language”. Maybe the author just tries to encourage the use of dictionaries and if so, she succeeded. I decoded the text into “There are many interesting and clever commentaries on this aspect of language”.
1 In a traditional (printed) dictionary the definition would probably have been corrected after publication. For example, into “… likely to be effective and applicable to …”. An interesting thing about publications on the Internet is that it is very likely that soon after publication of these pages the definition will be corrected.
Landau, Sidney I. 1984. Dictionaries: the Art and Craft of
Simultaneous Feedback: http://tshwanedje.com/sf
Svensén, Bo. 1987, 2e 2004.
Handbok i lexikografi. Ordböcker och ordboksarbete i teori och praktik.