emdrone (emdrone) wrote in linguaphiles,

Types of Dictionaries

In one previous post someone was asking for a piece of advice regarding English monolingual dictionaries for his relative, a German speaker studying to become a translator from English and French.

It seems that many - native speakers ostensibly apparently - did not even realize that there are different CLASSES of dictionaries, and that their relative utility for a native speaker versus foreign learner varies drastically.

My comment was too long there, but might be useful to others, I felt, because I was speaking from my own experience. Hence, I am reposting it as a separate entry in this community (and append a question).

People here in their comments are mixing apples and oranges. Some do not seem to be aware that there are 2 different CLASSES of dictionaries, those for native speakers of English (OED, "full" dictionaries from Longman or Collins etc) -- those are useless for your sister's needs -- and "Learner's Dictionaries", which I am describing below. That is what she really needs for oral translation and to understand the workings of the the core of the language.
For written translations of dated texts, i.e. passive recognition of meaning when a word is already there, used correctly by an English author - she may later turn to shorter versions of OED (such as "Shorter" or "Concise" editions) etc.
They are useless if she is trying to acquire _active_ knowledge of English, as they simply omit most of the relevant information

You said she is a native German speaker, who studies French and English. OK, for French the situation is much better and the answer is immediately obvious: "le Petit Robert" or shorter versions of same are ideal.
Also for active mastery of the language it would be very, very useful (and the fastest method I know) to read entries for "frequent words" in another smaller monolingual dictionary written specifically for foreign learners of the language, Robert et Cle "Dictionnaire du Francais" by Josette Rey-Debove (the wife of Allan Rey, the author of the "big" Robert)
This intermediate dictionary (around 20,000 words) is so great not so much for its definitions - it may exclude rarer uses of words etc. - but for the wealth of examples in everyday French, selected specifically for this dictionary. I could not find anything even distantly comparable anywhere else. The easiest method of enriching your French vocabulary is just to read this dictionary like a book It also marks "most frequent" words from the core of French, possibly closer to 5000 of them.

ONE MORE category of dictionaries one absolutely has to own for translating and professional work with a foreign language (besides dictionaries of synonyms, those later become important - but Robert has one "embedded" in its entries anyway, thanks to Allan Rey's notion of what a proper dictionary should be) are Dictionaries of COLLOCATIONS.
In English at least 2 publishers have produced them, Oxford (superior) and Macmillan ( a smaller and inferior one).
General-purpose monolingual dictionaries, even the best of them like Collins COBUILD, which includes groups of words with which some given headword collocates in a given sense as part of its definitions, cannot provide exhaustive lists in paper editions, that would turn them into unmanageable multi-volume monsters.
But a separate book that lists collocates for say 5000-8000 of the most frequent words (mostly nouns) is a good solution.

For French - well, there is another Robert volume, "Dictionnaire des combinaisons de mots" , but while useful it is not as well written as its English Oxford equivalent - it was obviously based on a corpus significantly skewed towards newspaper French.
French linguistics is however strong in its own ways, not exactly mimicking English lexicographic tradition, and it has a bunch of other dictionaries exploring ideas of synonymity and collocation in interesting ways (I will skip them here, though)

Hope that helps. My advice is based on my own experience, and I do practice what I preach myself ;))

So, regarding monolingual dictionaries of English I could make several points

    FIRST. All monolingual dictionaries for foreign learners of English can be found on-line. Therefore, it's easy for your sister to check them and see what she prefers.

    SECOND. Your sister does not want monolingual dictionaries for native speakers of English, she emphatically does not.
    They omit so much vital information, that they become useless. If you already know 30,000-40,000 words and want a book of cryptic reminders with scarce examples, than they will serve you right.
    But a foreigner needs a very thorough book of explanations, that would be directly applicable to active us of words and phrases, with several examples per each sense. Plus much more.

    Therefore we immediately rule out - the outdated in its methodology Merriam-Webster (it present a 19th century view of the language; the most cryptic and least suited for a foreign learner or interpteter). In the same vein we should ignore (the "real) Oxford (OED), "full" Longman, Collins dictionaries etc. etc.

    THIRD. Dictionaries for foreign learners from all major publishers (i.e. Oxford, Cambridge, Longman, Macmillan, "Collins COBUILD") are quite competitive today - the field experienced an enormous growth since 1980s. They borrow ideas from one another and all of them seem to embrace the following principles:

      -- limited defining vocabulary. From strict 2000 words for Longman, to around 3000 in Oxfore Advanced Learner's Dictionary of English (OALDE), etc.

      -- all are based on English corpora - the most important change in the past 20 years or so. It means two things primarily: (a) they describe what REALLY IS, not what a lexicographer imagines, and (b) their examples are drawn from REAL usage, not invented or "pedagogical" one

      -- Most if not all mark "frequency bands", i.e. they show most frequent words and/or meanings, a thing of utmost importance for a foreign learner. The first 2000-3000 words (important: in ALL their frequent meanings and usages) cover up to 80% of non-specialized English texts.
      If one uses a dictionary for active study - not just to look up words encountered elswhere, but as a book to read, in place of (or in addition to) regular courses - probably the most effective technique for rapid language learning - then these marked frequent word entries must be read first, as they form the core of the language

      -- all of them indicate patterns English words (esp verbs, but also other parts of speech) impose around themselves

      -- some of them - here it varies a lot - indicate some collocations for the headword

    Now, among all those equals there is one that is more equal than others, though. The best one of the whole pack - a pioneering work in the mid-1980s, still unsurpassed in many senses - is the product of the Collins COBUILD project. (That stands for Collins - Birmingham University international Language Database)

    COBUILD people were first to feed enormous amounts of real English into a computer and then to study the resulting corpus.

    They re-analyzed the core of the English language and created a description unlike any other until then.
    In their main product, currently sold as Collins COBUILD Advanced Dictionary (there is a version for American English, too), they go farther than others.
    The most noticeable part of it is that THEIR DEFINITIONS ARE COMPLETE ENGLISH SENTENCES, e.g.

      propose ( proposes 3rd person present) ( proposing present participle) ( proposed past tense & past participle )

      1 verb If you propose something such as a plan or an idea, you suggest it for people to think about and decide upon. (= suggest)
      Britain is about to propose changes to some institutions... V n/-ing
      It was George who first proposed that we dry clothes in that locker. V that

      2 verb If you propose to do something, you intend to do it.
      It's still far from clear what action the government proposes to take over the affair... V to-inf
      And where do you propose building such a huge thing? V -ing

      3 verb If you propose a theory or an explanation, you state that it is possibly or probably true, because it fits in with the evidence that you have considered.
      FORMAL This highlights a problem faced by people proposing theories of ball lightning... V n
      Newton proposed that heavenly and terrestrial motion could be unified with the idea of gravity. V that

      4 verb If you propose a motion for debate, or a candidate for election, you begin the debate or the election procedure by formally stating your support for that motion or candidate.
      A delegate from Siberia proposed a resolution that he stand down as party chairman... V n
      ♦ proposer ( proposers plural) n-count
      ...Mr Ian Murch, the proposer of the motion.

      5 verb If you propose a toast to someone or something, you ask people to drink a toast to them.
      Usually the bride's father proposes a toast to the health of the bride and groom. V n

      6 verb If you propose to someone, or propose marriageto them, you ask them to marry you.
      He had proposed to Isabel the day after taking his seat in Parliament. V to n, Also V, V n, V n to n

    These "sentences for definitions" idea is not some gimmick, they are there for a good reason:

      -- they show who, what, what classes of subjects can be used in a given sense: "if YOU (= a human) propose something..."

      -- they show to which group of things or persons the meaning is applicable (e.g. propose a plan or idea; propose a theory or explanation; propose to do sth; propose a toast)

      -- they immediately show you IN THE DEFINITION itself a typical usage pattern

      -- they further indicate more patterns in examples drawn from their corpus, i.e. in real English (and mark them as ""V to-inf"; "V that"; "V to n" etc)

    This is unique, other dictionaries leave some of this information for the reader to infer or to pick up from examples - Collins COBUILD just tells you.

    Then, meanings are arranged according to their frequency (the commonest come first)
    And one more thing - the words are defined in "free style", written by human lexicographers, but they use more frequent words than the ones they define - as far as that is possible, thus leading a reader to around 3000 commonest words.

    Collins COBUILD is still - since 1986, if my memory serves me right, when the first edition appeared - unbeaten and number one for a foreigner who wants to really understand how the core of the language operates.

    The dictionary includes around 35,000 - that figure is standard for all "big" learner's dictionaries from all major publishers I listed above.

    All of them also include CDs and can be used on your computer.

    I myself after living for a dozen and a half years in the USA, however, use my Oxford Concise (older edition, before it was dumbed down - this would correspond to today's "Shorter" version, probably) - that's about 40,000 entries (i.e. without the usual cheating when examples and sub-senses under a headword are included into the count) - very, very rarely.

    Answers to most of questions about shades of meaning, collocations, "pragmatics", usage patterns I search first in my Collins COBUILD (again, I prefer an older edition before it got dumbed down), then in specialized dictionaries like Oxford Collocations and two full thesauri (from Oxford and Collins).The description provided in the learner's Collins COBUILD remains indispensable, even if I have long felt that I "know" English far beyond what is considered a learner's level.

    Strangely enough, the French Robert is much fuller and more "correct" dictionary for a foreign learner - thanks to Allan Rey's insights and an enormously useful structure of his entries - than the "big" Oxford, Longman or Collins are for the English language

Now for the question Could someone name a similar set of books (monolingual dictionaries for foreign learners, "fuller" or smaller ones, using controlled defining vocabulary (e.g. 2000-3000 words), as well as collocations dictionaries FOR GERMAN ?
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