Teaching Lexicography or
In an interesting paper at last year's
Euralex Congress, Tamás Magay addressed the theme of teaching
lexicography, and raised the issue of "where and how lexicography
is taught in European universities" (2000). This is a highly
relevant topic for almost any member of Euralex, but - as so
often happens when this subject is discussed - no distinction
was made between teaching people about lexicography, and
training people to be lexicographers. The debate needs
to move into this territory because there appears to be, in some
quarters at least, an implicit assumption that the key to better
dictionaries is simply more university-based training. To quote
Magay: "Once we accept that dictionary-making is now a profession,
it has to be taught at the highest level" (p.443). This
is merely the latest airing of a view that has been floated at
various times over the last 20 years (see for example the collection
of papers edited by Robert Ilson in the mid-80s). But is it true?
The question is timely because there is currently a lot of activity
in this area. The University of Exeter's Dictionary Research
Centre (DRC) - which pioneered courses in lexicography in the
UK, and has a well-established MA programme and a popular annual
short course - is about to move to a new home at (very appropriately)
the University of Birmingham. Meanwhile, the Lexicography MasterClass
(LMC, consisting of Sue Atkins, Adam Kilgarriff and myself) is
about to launch a one-week workshop at the University of Brighton's
Information Technology Research Institute (ITRI), to be followed
in 2002 by a new MSc programme in lexicography and lexical computing.
Against this background, it seems incumbent on course-providers
to be clear about the sort of knowledge and skills they are undertaking
to equip prospective students with.
Lexicography is a legitimate academic subject in its own right,
not least because of the wide range of "feeder" disciplines
- lexical semantics, second-language acquisition theory, and
computational linguistics, to name just a few - that supply a
theoretical perspective against which lexicographic issues can
be intelligently addressed. Consequently, people working in many
fields can derive great benefit from learning more about the
theoretical, pedagogical and computational underpinnings of the
lexicographic process. This does not, however, turn them into
lexicographers. As any practising lexicographer knows, the only
real way to learn how to write dictionaries is to write dictionaries.
Most good dictionary publishers, whether operating in the commercial
or academic sphere, provide on-the-job training for their staff
- typically some combination of initial "basic training"
followed by ongoing feedback and mentoring over a long period.
Against this background, what is the role for courses in lexicography
provided by academic institutions?
Perhaps another way of framing this question would be to look
at the skills a contemporary lexicographer needs and consider
how far these are (or can be) supplied within dictionary publishing
houses through the traditional "apprentice" model.
Probably the most central task in general lexicography consists
of analyzing very large quantities of primary data (from a corpus)
and imposing some sort of order on it - or, more accurately,
discerning the underlying order within it and then describing
this in a way that is both useful and relevant to a particular
group of dictionary users. The better one understands every stage
in this process, the more successful one is likely to be. If
you know, for example, where your corpus data comes from, why
the corpus is designed in the way it is and how is it linguistically
annotated, you are in a better position to conduct sophisticated
searches, to perceive patterns and regularities in the mass of
data, and to distinguish between what is relevant and what is
marginal. Or again, the process of discovering meanings is likely
to be more effective when gut instinct is complemented by some
understanding of lexical relations or frame semantics. Traditionally,
many lexicographers have acquired high levels of competence as
data analysts, seemingly by osmosis and without necessarily being
able to articulate the criteria that underlie their decision-making.
But now, with so much data to process, lexicographers need all
the help they can get, and linguistic theory has an important
role to play in informing the judgments that we make.
Dictionary publishers remain the primary suppliers of training
in the practical skills of lexicography. But it is not realistic
to expect them to deliver the full range of training needs -
partly because they will not always have expertise in all of
the relevant theoretical disciplines, and partly for straightforward
business reasons. Though the best publishers set aside time and
resources to train their staff, the normal pressures of deadlines
take their toll. Meanwhile, changing patterns of work have reduced
publishers' capacity to nurture new editors: large in-house dictionary
teams (which provide a supportive learning environment for new
lexicographers) are becoming more of a rarity. The arrival of
email, intranets and inexpensive high-powered computing has had
the effect of dispersing editorial teams, as experienced people
increasingly opt to work from home, sometimes for several different
publishers. Though this has many benefits, for publishers and
employees alike, one of its less positive side-effects is that
few publishers can now provide all the necessary training.
In tandem with these changes, we are also seeing (and not before
time) the development of closer links between lexicography on
the one hand and the natural language processing community on
the other. The benefits of collaboration between these two sectors
are at last beginning to be recognized, but this in turn requires
lexicographers to learn yet more skills. This, then, is the environment
in which the LMC has begun to plan new courses. It became clear
to us that the best model for an effective training programme
would be one that combined a grounding in relevant theoretical
subjects with a strong element of hands-on learning of practical
skills. Over the past four years or so we have, either collectively
or individually, run a number of customized short courses for
institutions in various parts of the world. This July, however,
we are launching our first general programme in Brighton - lexicom@itri
- a one-week training workshop.
The term "workshop" is deliberate, because a key feature
of the programme is that lecture sessions alternate with periods
in the computer lab, where participants will do practical tasks
that relate directly to the subject of the previous lecture.
There is an analogy here with professional disciplines such as
law or medicine, where a good theoretical grounding is a starting
point for the development of practical skills. And just as a
detailed knowledge of legal precedent cannot in itself turn someone
into an effective courtroom advocate, so a familiarity with the
minutiae of metalexicographic theory does not per se make someone
a good dictionary writer. The practical and theoretical go hand
in hand. The three areas we aim to cover in detail are: designing,
building and working with a text corpus; creating and using a
dictionary database; and, the process of writing actual dictionary
entries. Along the way, we will take in issues such as corpus
annotation (POS-tagging and other ways of enriching raw text
data), smart approaches to data extraction (including some programming
skills), and the principles of writing definitions.
The workshop is not aimed at complete beginners: rather, we expect
participants to have some grounding in one of the three main
disciplines involved (lexicography, linguistics and computer
science), so that they can use the course to learn more about
the other subjects that have a bearing on their work, and of
course to contribute their own perspective in those areas where
they are already experienced.
Lexicom promises to be a great learning opportunity for everyone
involved - not least the tutors themselves, of course, since
the best thing about lexicography is that there is always more
to learn. When we planned the course, we decided that we would
need at least 15 participants to make it worth doing. In the
event, we have had to cap the attendance at 50 and create a waiting
list for lexicom 2002. This level of interest suggests there
is plenty of demand for courses of this type. We are currently
developing, with several other colleagues at Brighton, a new
MSc programme in Lexicography and Lexical Computing, which has
been approved to start up in October 2002.
To return, finally, to the question we touched on earlier: what
skills can participants in the lexicom workshop expect to go
away with? It would be unwise for us to claim that we can turn
people into lexicographers in a week. A more reasonable objective,
however, is to give aspiring dictionary-editors enough grounding
to know whether they have the potential to go further, and to
enable established lexicographers to "raise their game"
through a deeper and broader understanding of the diverse range
of factors that contribute to making great dictionaries.
Our other main objective, of course, is that we all enjoy ourselves
in the process.
Ilson, R. 1986. Lexicography:
an Emerging International Profession. Manchester:
Manchester University Press.
Magay T. 2000. "Teaching Lexicography." In Ulrich
Heid et al. (eds), EURALEX 2000 Proceedings. Stuttgart:
Universität Stuttgart, IMS.
Lexicom takes place on 16-20 July 2001. The other two members
of the Lexicography MasterClass (LMC) are Sue Atkins and Adam
Kilgarriff. Sue Atkins is an immensely experienced lexicographer,
a past president of Euralex, and the driving force behind the
establishment of the BNC. Adam Kilgarriff, a Senior Research
Fellow at Brighton's Information Technology Research Institute
(ITRI), is an authority on the interface between lexicography
and language technology, and has published extensively in both
About the author
K Dictionaries Ltd
Michael Rundell has been a professional lexicographer
since 1980, working on a wide range of English dictionaries.
As Managing Editor at Longman Dictionaries (1984-94), he was
responsible for running major projects including the Longman
Language Activator (1993) and Longman Dictionary of Contemporary
English (2/e 1987 and 3/e 1995). He had a leading role in
the design of several lexicographic corpora (including the Longman
Lancaster Corpus, Longman Learner Corpus, and British National
Corpus) and was a member of the Advisory Committee for the forthcoming
American National Corpus. As well as running training courses
for Longman lexicographers, in both the UK and US, he has taught
for many years on the Interlex and MA programmes at the University
of Exeter. He is now a freelance consultant and divides his time
between dictionary editing and lexicographic training. He is
Editor-in-Chief of the forthcoming Macmillan English Dictionary.
10 Nahum Street, Tel Aviv 63503 Israel
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