LINGUIST List 12.1710

Mon Jul 2 2001

Review: Bejoint, Modern Lexicography, An Introduction

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  1. Irmeli Helin, review

Message 1: review

Date: Fri, 29 Jun 2001 12:51:47 +0300
From: Irmeli Helin <>
Subject: review

Bejoint, Henri (2000): Modern Lexicography. An Introduction, Oxford
University Press, paperback, 276 pp.

Reviewed by: Irmeli Helin, Department of Linguistics, University of

This book is a paperback edition of the first edition published by
the author about ten years ago under the title "Tradition and
Innovation in Modern English Dictionaries". According to the preface
the text of the new paperback edition is the same as in the first
edition, with a few corrections and an additional list of relevant
metalexicographical literature published between these two editions.

The original purpose of the book was to review many aspects of
lexicography, to present a general picture of the production of
dictionaries, especially within the English-speaking world, and to
create a kind of 'sociolexicography'. Anyway, the very first edition
has been used as a text book giving a general introduction to
lexicography for college students and lexicographers. The new
paperback edition was therefore published to give useful information
about lexicography and dictionaries to interested readers.

The book has been divided into seven chapters. The author begins by
pointing out the problems of terminology and definitions within
lexicography. Even the definition of the core word 'dictionary' has
been defined in several different ways in different dictionaries
during the history of lexicography. Further the author gives a
comprehensive inventory of the typology of dictionaries. The
categorizing of dictionaries usually takes place according to the
most obvious formal characteristics, e.g. dictionaries of synonyms,
slang, dialects and etymology. Another way to categorize dictionaries
is their size, but, as shown by the author, it is extremely difficult
to compare dictionaries as to the word-count, since publishers tend
to give as high amounts of entries as possible when advertising new
dictionaries, sometimes even counting each morphological item as a
separate entry.

In chapter 2 the lexicographical scene of English-speaking countries
is given, starting from the USA and going on to Great Britain and
other English-speaking countries, also comparing new trends and old
traditions of lexicography in the USA and Great Britain. Contrary to
earlier centuries during which English monolingual dictionaries were
produced an published in Britain, many English speaking countries
nowadays produce their own dictionaries more or less differing from
British ones. The USA began the production of American dictionaries
from American sources in nineteenth century, followed by e.g.
Australia, Canada and South Africa especially since mid-twentieth.
According to the author (p.43) English may further be the only
language for which monolingual dictionaries are published as foreign
language dictionaries in countries like France or Poland. This
chapter also lists the main characteristics of general-purpose
dictionaries differing from one English-speaking country to another
(especially between the USA and Britain). Those are e.g. spelling and
pronunciation, illustration, etymology, number of senses, treatment
of synonyms and antonyms, as well as that of special information and
terms of languages for special purposes (LSP).

In chapter 3 we can get a view of the historical origins and
development of dictionaries, especially the monolingual dictionaries.
We learn that Sumerian lists from the third millennium BC can be
regarded as at least ancestors of present dictionaries, but there may
have been 'oral' dictionaries even before any writing system had been
developed. The oldest dictionaries were probably used by
administrators, merchants and priests. However, as early as at that
time, it might have been difficult to set strict limits between an
encyclopedia (scholarly list of things making the world) and a
dictionary (book about words). In Europe, the first dictionaries were
probably bilingual (with Latin or Greek as one language), in many
non-European societies monolingual. Bilingual dictionaries often had
a pedagogical nature since societies needed translations and usage of
different languages. The European tradition of monolingual
dictionaries goes back to the late sixteenth century. Compared to the
older bilingual dictionaries they also had the function of an
instrument for self-teaching used by women, children and foreigners,
all having no access to the traditional means of education. After
being limited word-lists dictionaries developed during the centuries
to 'records of the whole language', and the laborious and slow
gathering of words has been replaced by enormous masses of text
corpora coded, processed and analyzed in some seconds by modern

Chapter 4 concentrates on the relation of general-purpose
dictionaries to the surrounding society, to the changes in the
society and to the popular image of a general-purpose dictionary. How
do dictionaries and lexicographers react to sudden changes in the
society? Is it possible to draw conclusions about the society by
using a dictionary as one of the sources? Further, the 'truth' of the
word-explanations in a dictionary, the selection of words and taboo
words, the actual usage of dictionaries and the dictionary as an
ideological weapon are questions arisen in discussions concerning
lexicography in different times and societies.

After the ideological questions in chapter 4, chapter 5 goes on by
asking about the real function of monolingual general-purpose
dictionaries, which user skills are assumed by lexicographers and how
they match up to the expectations and real skills of dictionary
users. Nowadays lexicographers feel that they should find out, in
some way or another, what the prospective users do when they seek
help in a general-purpose dictionary. They thus wish to meet the
needs of ordinary users contrary to old-time lexicographers who
thought to know what was good for their public. The public had to
adapt to the dictionary and not vice versa. Anyway, first since
1980ies many studies have been carried out concerning the use of
general-purpose dictionaries, even if the first ones had taken place
about twenty years earlier. The studies were carried out with
monolingual and/or bilingual dictionaries using native or non-native
speakers and subjects of different ages and backgrounds. It was found
out that subjects most often used a general-purpose dictionary for
meanings or synonyms but also for spelling and, to a smaller amount,
to etymologies, pronunciation, games etc. The types of lexical item
most often consulted were idioms and taboo words. The author
represents the idea of a 'psycholexicography' i.e. studies on how
lexical elements are acquired and what takes place when someone uses
a dictionary. Is the method used inductive or deductive and can e.g.
concrete words be more easily acquired than others? Since this domain
has been ignored by lexicographers, a 'psycholexicography' could make
dictionaries more effective by availing itself of what is known of
the mental lexicon of the dictionary users.

Chapter 6 explains the linguistic traditions of lexicography and the
attitudes of linguists towards lexicography and lexicographical
traditions earlier and today. Until recent days, lexicographers were
often considered as non-linguists, even rejected by the academic
world of linguists. Consequently, linguists had no interest towards
dictionaries, except perhaps as records of exotic languages and
dialects. General-purpose dictionaries were regarded by linguists as
commercial products, too unscientific for the academic world, and as
only an impure by-product of linguistics. Because of the relative
absence of lexis and semantics in the linguistics of more than the
last hundred years until the latest few decades lexicology was not
recognized as a branch of linguistics, either. Its position as a
central discipline is still not accepted everywhere in the academic
world. Anyway, even if not all authors of dictionaries are linguists,
it does not mean that a dictionary lacks linguistic knowledge or does
not reflect linguistic theories and practices of its production time
and place.

The last chapter contemplates the future and the development of
lexicography, especially as to development of studies on word meaning
in general and its effects on lexicography.

As a linguist and lexicographer myself I really enjoyed reading this
book and found it interesting and clear. Therefore it is easy to
understand, why it has been used as a textbook for students and young
lexicographers. Anyway, it is attractive to more experienced
lexicographers, linguists and even ordinary users of dictionaries as
well. Most researchers of terminologies and LSP may also agree with
the views of the author concerning the attitudes of linguists towards
dictionaries in general, and towards the ideology of the surrounding
societies reflected by the dictionary in different times and
countries. The author is French and it is natural that he compares
his material with French dictionaries and cites French lexicographers
and French publications when studying dictionaries in English
language. As he states in his preface, the book concentrates on
British and American monolingual general-purpose dictionaries, but
still one would have appreciated a little more information about
monolingual dictionaries in other languages than English as well as
about bi- and multilingual dictionaries. The recent development in
the production of dictionaries using enormous text corpora and modern
equipment could have deserved a bit more pages in this new paperback
edition of the book first published ten years ago. In general, it is
astonishing to see from the information provided and still up-to-
date, that this branch has not changed in ten years as much as one
would assume.

Terminologists and lexicographers may agree with me that this book
helps to stick to the results of our own researches concerning
semantics, collocations and contextual meanings of terms often still
arising controversial opinions in discussions with linguists. The
metalexicographical aspect in the book concerning collocations in
dictionaries was one of the many to the point observations which I
very much appreciated, and the chapter of ideology in dictionaries
could not agree more with my own researches when studying changes of
meaning of some core terms of a German LSP during the last 150 years.

I highly recommend this book to all linguists and students of
linguistics as well as to ordinary users of dictionaries.

Reviewer: Irmeli Helin, PhD, BSc(Econ), coordinator of Multilingual
Communication Programme and lecturer on German language translation
and interpretation at the University of Helsinki. Dissertation in
1998 on the special language and terminology of the German co-
operative movement. Author of a monolingual dictionary of Finnish co-
operative terms in 2000, and one of the editors of a new large
bilingual German-Finnish dictionary to be published in 2002.
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