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Are they still making them? Dictionaries in a digital world

by | Aug 24, 2016 | Dictionaries


When I say I make dictionaries for Oxford University Press, people used to say, “Remind me not to play scrabble against you!” Now they say, “Are you still making dictionaries? I just use Google.”

It’s true that a number of dictionary publishers have gone out of business over the last 10 years, or changed their business radically: Chambers closed their head office in Edinburgh in 2009, ending almost 200 years of publishing, and in 2012 Macmillan decided to stop printing dictionaries and only do online.

But in that time, others have entered the dictionary market. Dictionary.com is a big player, and of course so are Google, Microsoft and other tech companies, with their “translate” functions and the way they’ve made it easy to find the meaning of a word by simply typing “[unfamiliar word] definition” into the search box.

And children still want dictionaries: A field-worker from an NGO told me, “Children stay after class to read your Bilingual School Dictionary for isiXhosa – they just love it!”

So what’s up with dictionaries? Why do some people go on using them?

Let’s get one thing straight: the definitions that Google offers you for free mostly come from existing dictionaries published in print or online. Google sources top quality, carefully compiled and researched dictionary data from publishers and content owners to ensure it can meet the needs of its users.

If Google sees value in offering dictionary (or lexical) data to its users, it’s because it knows that people find this data useful. Google can see what millions of people worldwide type into search boxes and it analyses that data to find out what people want to know about. Turns out, a very large number of people want to know answers to lexical questions – questions about words! – as opposed to questions about the world (the number of the closest pizza place, or videos of people popping pimples).

Lexical data has obvious value – it helps people to understand foreign languages as well as to use their own language better. It makes them laugh (how can “fartlek” be a kind of sport?), it makes them cross (argument about “laying” vs “lying”, anyone?), and it makes them better informed (did you know “cisgender” and “transgender” have Latin roots?).

The dictionaries that we compile are mainly still printed, not online. My team and I make them because many children in South African schools fail to fulfil their potential, learning all their subjects in a language they don’t know very well – English. We make dictionaries because we want South African children to succeed in Maths and Science, and to be able to talk to one another in the multiple languages of our country.

So what does digital have that print can’t beat?

Using two new, free dictionary websites, speakers of isiZulu and Northern Sotho can now contribute words from religious practices to cooking, and from science to slang. Provided with a core of quality dictionary content, these sites (zu.oxforddictionaries.com and nso.oxforddictionaries.com) will be fleshed out by the people who know these languages best – mother-tongue speakers.

Making a print dictionary is like trying to stuff a sleeping bag into a matchbox – cutting content to reach the number of pages that keeps the price bearable – but there is no such problem with digital. There is no limit to how many words or example sentences can be included, so speakers are free to share their language and their love for it.

If digital’s advantage over print is that it has space for all our words from all our languages, then print’s advantage is that it still works when load-shedding hits, you don’t have airtime, or you don’t want to be distracted by all the online stuff desperate for your attention. Ultimately, access to lexical information is what’s important, not the route used to get it. With lexical support, learners can pursue their goals more successfully, and find a place in a future that’s being shaped now.

Megan Hall has been publishing dictionaries for Oxford University Press Southern Africa since 2003. In her private capacity, she won the Ingrid Jonker Prize for Poetry in 2008.

The original version of this article appeared in the Mail & Guardian (8 July 2016).

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