By Kamil Wiśniewski Aug 19th, 2007

Lexicography is often described as the art of making, designing and compiling dictionaries. The work of lexicographers includes compiling a stock of words in a language and providing a description of each of them. There are a few kinds of dictionaries which give different types of information about words. The principal ones are:

  • Scientific dictionaries which are dictionaries of record in that they register all (if possible) vocabulary of language, usually on historical principles with numerous examples showing words’ usage;
  • Functional dictionaries for everydayuse which are designed for use by native speakers who want to check the meaning of an unfamiliar word. It is difficult to choose the words that should appear in such dictionaries and the most often used criterion is that of the rarity of the words’ occurrence. It is believed that very frequently used words (such as paper, or road) would not be looked up in a dictionary, so the focus is on words less frequently used as it is assumed that those could be unfamiliar and thus checked in such a dictionary.
  • Pedagogical dictionaries are divided into two types: compiledfor language learners with the emphasis on syntax and usage; and dictionaries for schoolchildren who are native speakers. Dictionaries for schoolchildren are often just simplified versions of dictionaries for adults.
  • Dictionaries of slang in which a lot of effort is put into collecting citations, providing examples and precise definitions, as even for native speakers many headwords might be unfamiliar.
  • Dictionaries of idioms are in most cases aimed at foreign language learners and explain the phrases whose meanings could not be inferred from the context.
  • Dictionaries devoted to only one subject such as medicine, law, computers or sport games. They usually have more detailed, almost encyclopedic information about the headwords, often without notes on usage, or linguistic properties.
  • Bilingual dictionaries which are tools for learning a foreign language.
  • Onomasiological dictionaries – dictionaries of synonyms, thesauruses.

When creating a dictionary lexicographers must consider many issues and what needs to be said about each word: the orthography of the headword and all inflections, instructions concerning pronunciation, part of speech, the definition of a word, examples of use, as well as etymology and phraseology.

There are four general principles that are applied to most types of dictionaries:

  • Breadth, not depth: lexicographers do not provide all the information about words, but only selected data so as not to overwhelm the reader and provide the most crucial, meaningful aspects of a word;
  • Consistency: unlike in literature where writers try to add variety to their language lexicographers avoid stylistic variation and attempt to make their definitions clear and uncomplicated;
  • Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: nowadays lexicographers usually take the descriptive approach that is they only describe the language and do not judge if it is good or bad, although in the past some scholars tried the prescriptive approach and suggested what should be used.
  • Synchronic versus historical approach: in the majority of popular, one volume dictionaries the synchronic approach is visible which is giving the modern meaning of the word at the beginning. In many cases, however, when it is difficult to decide which modern meaning should be placed at the very beginning, the etymology of the word is analyzed, and aspects such as the frequency, concrete vs. abstract references, as well as cognitive plausibility are taken into consideration.

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