LINGUIST List 12.2643

Tue Oct 23 2001

Review: Benson, Ethnocentrism & the English Dictionary

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  1. Michele Terray, Review of Benson, Ethnocentrism and the English Dictionary

Message 1: Review of Benson, Ethnocentrism and the English Dictionary

Date: Fri, 19 Oct 2001 18:12:44 EDT
From: Michele Terray <>
Subject: Review of Benson, Ethnocentrism and the English Dictionary

Benson, Phil (2001) Ethnocentrism and the English Dictionary.
Routledge, vii+232pp, hardback ISBN 0-415-22074-2, $90.00
(Routledge Studies in the History of Linguistics 3).

Michele Terray, Linguistics Department, University of Georgia

Benson sets out to locate the sources of ethnocentrism in the
monolingual English dictionary via the elements of lexicographic
structure and defining language. The dictionary's components
typically assume the viewpoint of an educated elite, in which
inequalities abound. Ironically, it has become the authority
upon which all other aspects of language rely.

The book is organized into three distinct sections, treating the
English dictionary as both a linguistic and cultural
accomplishment. The first section depicts the theoretical
aspects of dictionary compilation, including how semiotics and
ideology influence lexicographers. Most importantly, the
dictionary can be regarded as a discourse tool mirroring the
development of language. Evidence of ethnocentrism is discussed
within the dictionary's macro- and micro-structure. A center-
periphery metaphor is offered as a tool to identify ethnocentric
practices in wordlist selection, labels, definitions and
illustrations. All components are subject to the discretion of
the compiler(s) in combination with the socio-economic status of
the language. A compelling parallel is made with cartography in
which the cartographer's birthplace was typically located on or
near the center of the map. Also, the map may appear slightly or
grossly out-of-proportion to those residing outside the country
of production.

The second section is devoted to historical analysis of the
monolingual English dictionary, particularly as it relates to
evolution of the language itself. Lexicography is viewed pre-
and post-Samuel Johnson, then as an authoritative entity
culminating in the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (OED), which claimed
English for England. The dictionary became the cultural center
of the language and proper English was considered to be the
Standard British Variety, i.e. that of the elite in England.
"...the English language could now be seen as an object
susceptible to manipulation and control." (p. 84)

The third section fulfills the author's empirical goal of proving
that ethnocentrism still exists. The OED is analyzed through the
eyes of Chinese users. The treatment of definitions and
quotations, for example, reveals that the native English speaker
remains at the cultural center of the dictionary.

The 'Chinese in the OED' section seemed at first to be
superfluous and I felt that the reader could be completely
satisfied with his/her acquired knowledge on the topic from the
first six chapters. However, the empirical analysis did offer an
in depth treatment of how the OED has skewed the reality of one
language (or ethnicity) through the eyes of another. The book
leaves the reader, however, with the notion that the English
dictionary is the only language dictionary in which ethnocentrism
reveals itself. One may also examine the leading Soviet Russian
or pan-Arabic dictionaries to witness ethnocentric practices in
structure, defining vocabulary and discrimination in representing

Another point to argue is, 'The dominance of the OED within the
field of lexicography ... has caused the discourse of the
dictionary in respect to its treatment of English as an
international language to lag behind the times.' (p. 131) The
implication here is that one publication is to blame. Since the
early 1800s, American dictionaries have also been guilty of
ethnocentrism and homogenization. Perhaps the reason for
'lagging behind the times' concerns the dictionary maker, who
decade after decade copied or built upon the work of their
predecessors. It is ultimately the lexicographer who has the
responsibility to maintain the status-quo, bound by
'Anglocentricity', to which Tom McArthur refers in LIVING WORDS
(p. 30) or to pave new roads into the polyglot of World Englishes
and avoid ethnocentric practices.

Benson accurately and insightfully notes the social expectation
that the dictionary's coverage is exhaustive. We succumb to the
inclusion or exclusion of terms, quotations, definitions, et al.,
of this authority whose parameters are shaped by socio-cultural
and ideological preference. He encourages the reader to consider
the dictionary as a fluid, broader entity crossing many

an ancillary source for those interested in the fields of
Lexicography and Dictionary Criticism. I believe it is better
suited for the graduate student or beyond, due to the highly
theoretical angle of the book. A better primer for the
undergraduate or interested novice would be Sydney Landau's
DICTIONARIES, in which the fundamentals of lexicography are the
feature attraction. Benson thoroughly exposed each structural
component of the English dictionary for its ethnocentric
tendencies as the representations of the language itself have
changed over time. As a text supplementing any study on the
diachronic and synchronic socio-historical aspects of the
influence of the English language, ETHNOCENTRISM AND THE ENGLISH
DICTIONARY is a fine addition.

Landau, Sydney I. (1984) Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of
Lexicography, Scribner Press, New York

McArthur, Tom. (1998) Living Words: Language, Lexicography and
the Knowledge Revolution, University of Exeter Press

I am Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at the University of Georgia,
specializing in Second Language Acquisition and Lexicography.
Academic interests include Finno-Ugric studies and loanword
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