The Coming Boom in English Lexicography:
Some Thoughts about the World Wide Web
Charles M. Levine
Not infrequently, people unfamiliar
with the dictionary marketplace assume that spell checkers, given
away free with computer word-processing programs, have made printed
lexicons obsolete. "Why would anyone want a dictionary anymore?"
some people chime, glossing over the difference between a spell
checker and a dictionary, and oblivious as well to how poor spell
checkers usually still are. (Since spell checkers are bundled
freely, there is no money to be made and no incentive in developing
truly better, more intelligent spell-checking software.)
Even those who are more knowledgeable about the dictionary market,
such as sales and marketing people at large publishing houses,
often think it is just a matter of time before people stop buying
printed dictionaries. After all, one is often reminded, printed,
multi-volume general English encyclopedias for all intents and
purposes have gone extinct - from somewhere in the range of 500,000-750,000
sets sold worldwide in 1990, to significantly less than 100,000
today. How can printed dictionaries be far behind?
According to friend and colleague Joseph Esposito, former CEO
of Britannica and the driving force behind the first launches
of www.britannica.com: "In talking about the relative size of
the encyclopedia market today, you may want to think about two
other metrics in addition to unit sales: dollar volume (down
by 90% since its peak), and the number of people who actually
use an encyclopedia (also down, but hard to measure). Encarta's
ubiquity has not resulted in more widespread use. And thereby
hangs a tale."
Or, as someone summed up in a Purdue University education course:
"How does a company [like Britannica] that survived over
200 years, through the American revolution, the industrial revolution,
WWI and WWII, find itself suddenly on the verge of being completely
eliminated by three simple letters: www?" (Google search
2000, undated and unattributed.)
In such an environment, no one in their right mind would start
up a new consumer encyclopedia company, or a new general-purpose
dictionary operation, I have been firmly told.
You could even say that Bloomsbury in England, who created the
new Encarta World English dictionaries (a brand new college edition
of which was just shipped), are no exception: Microsoft footed
the bill for a very specific reason: to avoid paying American
Heritage license fees for its dictionary which once graced the
Encarta digital reference suite. And, in the end, Microsoft does
not mind giving away for free a large percentage of the Encarta
digital dictionaries in promotions to sell its Wintel hardware
But surprisingly, the printed dictionary market in the United
States seems to have held steady during this same past decade,
while the market for printed encyclopedias collapsed. Each year,
about 2 million college-level dictionaries and 2 million mass
market pocket dictionaries are sold regularly like clockwork.
The American domestic dictionary market seems as steady and as
uneventful as a rock - neither growing nor declining. And, at
the same time, Random House, American Heritage and Merriam-Webster
have found a new area (for American lexicographers, at least,
who came late to the game) in which to grow - the ESL/EFL (English
as a Second/Foreign Language) world market.
In fact, ESL/EFL will probably help keep the wolves from the
American lexicographers' door, and prevent dictionary operations
from going the way of their encyclopedic cousins. English learning
is booming around the world: "Today, 350 million people
are native English speakers, but by some counts more than a billion
speak at least some English as a second language. Most of them
are in Asia
"Now it's not native speakers that are moving English forward,'
said Larry E. Smith, an expert on international English at the
East-West Center in Honolulu. 'It's the non-native speakers,
the people in Singapore, the people in Malaysia.'" (Seth
Mydans, The New York Times, July 1, 2001).
Internet use is also driving English use. "More than 80%
of the home pages on the Web are in English, while the next greatest,
German, has a mere 4.5% and Japanese 3.1%," according to
John Simmons of Interbrand, which specializes in valuing brands.
(In 'Global usage of English speaks volumes in trade,' Robin
Young, The Times, 19 March 2001).
By calculating all the commerce carried out in various languages,
Simmons came up with a rather imaginative and, no doubt, utterly
wild estimate of what he calls the "gross language product
(GLP)", which for English "is the biggest at £5,455
billion, followed by Japanese at £2,960 billion, German
at £1,714 billion and Spanish at £1,249 billion."
This is a wild but highly suggestive estimate, but indeed by
every measure there is a boom in English usage and commerce fostered
by the World Wide Web, and this seems to be having just the opposite
effect on lexicography as it did on "encyclopediography."
The World Wide Web seems to be creating new markets for ESL/EFL
printed dictionaries and instruction materials - and for linguists
In fact, technology companies are competing to hire linguists,
despite the downturn in the Net economy: "Suddenly, linguists
have their pick of jobs as lexicographers, 'knowledge engineers'
and 'vocabulary-resource managers.' For those with doctorates,
the typical starting salary is around $60,000, plus some stock.
The more highly trained talent is drawing more than $100,000.
"Linguistics experts help e-businesses improve customer
service by building so-called natural-language processing systems
that can respond meaningfully to requests for help or information.
With linguists developing the database or 'lexicon,' a system
can distinguish between multiple meanings of words, relate groups
of words by concept, and narrow the scope of a search by asking
questions of the site visitor." (Daniel Goldin, The Wall
Street Journal, first read sometime in 2000, but undated
on Google, where I retrieved the article.)
I hope in the next installment to talk more about this boom in
English lexicography and how it relates to new developments coming
to the World Wide Web.
About the author
K Dictionaries Ltd
Charles M. Levine was until
recently the vice-president and publisher of the Random House
Dictionaries. He is currently executive director and CEO of the
Flora of North America, a collaborative nationwide project to
catalog the plants of the continental US, Canada and Greenland.
He has held a number of senior executive positions in digital
and print content management in Asia and the USA.
10 Nahum Street, Tel Aviv 63503 Israel
tel: 972-3-5468102 fax: 972-3-5468103