Dictionary prescriptivism

Russon Wooldridge

University of Toronto

© 2009 R. Wooldridge

(Paper given at a conference on Linguistic prescriptivism held in Toronto in August 2009.)

First of all, a word on the term prescriptivism, often opposed to descriptivism. The former is the approach "say this, don't say that", the latter "this is said". This narrow use of the term is not the one I shall talk about in my remarks.

I take dictionary prescriptivism, in its broad etymological sense, to mean the nature of the prescriptions that make a dictionary a dictionary. The content is an inventory of the lexical items of a language, the form the arrangement of this inventory. The form is essentially that of a work of reference, like a library catalogue or a telephone directory. Any use of a work of reference entails consultation before reading takes place. The text is discontinuous, whereas that of a novel, for example, is continuous and is normally read, not consulted. The word dictionary comes from the Latin dictionarium, the lexical items or dictiones ordered as are the water of an aquarium or the planets of a planetarium.

Traditionally the lexicographical definition of the lexicon of a language has been subject to criteria of size and weight determined as much by the publisher as by the lexicographer: a 2000-page dictionary of French, a twelve-volume dictionary of English, each volume measuring no more than such and such and holdable by a human being. Here the role of the linguist is to determine which are the most frequent items, to be included in the dictionary whatever its size, and which the less frequent, some of which will be included, some excluded (the least frequent). Size and weight are properties of the printed dictionary. In the case of the electronic dictionary they are of little or no relevance, and cease to play a part in the prescriptivism of the dictionary. Of course, when a print dictionary is converted to electronic form the size is determined by the original and not by the medium.

The form of the dictionary is bipartite. At the level of the whole lexical items are traditionally arranged in a macrostructure according to the order common to all literate speakers and readers of the language, which in the case of alphabetical written languages is the alphabet. At the level of the individual lexical item, a description of the item's linguistic properties is given in a recursive microstructure. Thus, if the part of speech is given for item A, then in principle the part of speech is provided in the same place in the microstructure of every other item. One can add that the alphabetical macrostructure is easier for the dictionary user to master than the microstructure, the ordering of linguistic properties being lexicographical in nature, subject both to tradition and to the particular style of each dictionary.

When one compares print dictionaries to electronic dictionaries, one observes that the macrostructure and the microstructure do not share the same fate. To take the latter, both print and the screen display a dictionary entry continuously so that a recursive structure is necessary in both cases.

As for the former, the macrostructure, made up of discreet units, whereas the discreetness is marked in print by the typeface of the headword beginning each entry, in the online dictionary it is marked by the total absence of any text "surrounding" the entry. For the manipulation of the macrostructure of the printed dictionary a mastery of the alphabet is necessary; for that of the online dictionary a familiarity with the keyboard is needed. ABC is replaced by QWERTY and AZERTY; headwords yield their place to keywords.

In sum, the dictionary intended to appear in print, or print dictionary for short, has a physical prescription concerning size and weight whereas the dictionary intended to be published online, or online dictionary for short, has none. The print dictionary has a prescription for the ordering of the items of its macrostructure whereas the online dictionary has none. Both have a prescription for the microstructure containing a description of the linguistic properties of each lexical item. The online dictionary is then less prescriptive than the print dictionary.

Subordinate to prescriptivism are limitations of authority and time. Print dictionaries are usually written by a team of individuals authorized by the publisher, or powerful teams or individuals who order a publisher or printer to publish their dictionary. Online dictionaries have the option of either limiting the writing to peer-recognized authorities or letting anonymous experts, whoever they be, create dictionary entries. Typical of the first model is Citizendium (launched March 2007), which, on 10 August 2009, had 112 approved articles, 973 developed articles and 11,666 articles in progress, all concerning and in English. Typical of the second model is Wikipedia (launched 2001), which, on the same date, had 2,988,459 articles in its English version, 837,310 in its French version. An offshoot of Wikipedia, Wiktionary (since December 2002) had 1,343,756 entries with English definitions from over 300 languages; the French equivalent, Wiktionnaire (since March 2004) had 1,452,682 articles in French on words from over 700 languages. From these figures, and those to be found in the introductions of print dictionaries, it is obvious that a contemporary word with strong semantic content, such as condo, is more likely to be looked up in an extensive dictionary like Wikipedia than in a print dictionary or peer-approved online dictionary such as the OED or Citizendium.

It should be noted that I use the term dictionary to cover both language dictionary and encyclopedia of knowledge. All language dictionaries contain a certain amount of encyclopedic information, at least in their examples of usage; American dictionaries have a tradition of including a certain number of proper nouns in their nomenclature. The distinction is arbitrary, as all nouns, common or proper, have linguistic properties such as orthography and pronunciation; place names have a prepositional grammar (en France, au Portugal) and a derivational morphology (a person from Manchester is a Mancunian, someone from Southampton is a Sotonian). But I digress.

The last factor I wish to discuss is time. A language, and in particular its lexicon, evolves continously. Print dictionaries, which require a new edition of the whole in order to be updated, are by nature fixed and, in the case of those that deal with contemporary language, therefore obsolescent. Online dictionaries, which do not need new editions, have the potential of keeping up with the lexicon and its portrayal of the everyday world. I shall give one example.

On 9 February 2009 at his first news conference, President Barack Obama made a special point of taking a question from the doyenne of the White House press corps Helen Thomas. Half an hour after watching the news conference on television I looked up the entry for Helen Thomas in Wikipedia. I read: "On February 9, 2009 Thomas was present in the front row for newly elected President Obama's news conference regarding the federal bailout bill. President Obama called on her with the statement 'Helen. I'm excited, this is my inaugural moment.'"

On which note I shall end.