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Review of  The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography

Reviewer: Claire Bowern
Book Title: The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography
Book Author: B. T. Sue Atkins Michael Rundell
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 20.2345

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AUTHOR: Atkins, B. T. Sue; Rundell, Michael
TITLE: The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2008

Claire Bowern, Department of Linguistics, Yale University

This introduction to lexicography is aimed at people who are creating
dictionaries of all kinds. Atkins and Rundell have written a manual for training
lexicographers in the skills and theory they need in order to understand how a
dictionary is constructed, how entries are written, and how the needs of the
target audience affect choices throughout the dictionary creation process. The
book presumes no previous knowledge of linguistics or lexicography.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part gives the considerations
for planning a dictionary and some of the theory of lexicography, including
types of dictionaries, the type of data which goes in to a dictionary, some
discussion of semantics, and issues to consider when planning a dictionary and
its entries. The first part covers approximately half the book, and the first
seven chapters. Considerable attention is given to the linguistic data which
constitute the raw input for a dictionary, the role of a corpus as a
representation of usage data, and how corpora are designed. Pages 69ff include a
useful inventory of text types as they relate to dictionary creation, such as
whether the data will be contemporary or also historical, whether the corpus
will be monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual, how the medium and mode of the
corpus data may affect usage data, and considerations of specialist terminology.

The second part is chapters eight and nine. This covers the work from selecting
items from the corpus and how to decide on word senses. The chapters also cover
linguistic concepts such as dialect, genre, and formality, and semantic concepts
such as polysemy. Some of this material was already covered in chapter 5 (in
fact, I found the distribution of material between chapter 5 and section 8.3 a
little odd). Pages 187ff cover metaphor. In general the linguistic level is
roughly an introductory linguistic class.

Part three of the book contains the final three chapters. Chapter 10 discusses
how to build a monolingual dictionary entry and introduces example style guides,
the concept of a templatic entry for various types of words, including
information which should be present for various types, suggestions for dealing
with multi-word expressions, suggestions for including information about
grammatical behavior of particular words, and labeling. There is also
considerable discussion of how to illustrate entries with examples. Chapter 11
discusses the creation of a bilingual dictionary, the use of a parallel corpus
and difficulties of translation equivalents. The final chapter of the book is a
guide to constructing bilingual dictionary entries: how to cater for a specific
user, the importance of the style guide, deciding on entries, and layout and
construction considerations (such as were discussed for monolingual entries in
an earlier chapter).

The book is nicely laid out and easy to follow. Concepts are appropriately
illustrated and there are a lot of examples from published dictionaries showing
what to do (and what not to do). The chapters break information up in such a way
that it would be quite easy to assign sections for reading within a course.
Occasionally I found the use of abbreviations intrusive but not overly so.

I have two criticisms of this volume. The first is a minor one, regarding the
place of linguistics in lexicography. The authors are not linguists and
conscientiously differentiate lexicography from linguistics. In fact, they go as
far as to say (page 130) that lexicography is based on instinct more than a
knowledge of language structure, and they draw a boundary between
lexicographers, ''who study dictionaries,'' and linguists, ''who study language.''
This seems to me to be dangerously artificial; after all, dictionaries have
linguistic content, they are books about language, and decisions about what to
present on how to present this content are based on a particular view of
linguistic structure (for example, the words _dog_ and _dogs_ are not given
separate entries in a dictionary although they are different words, for the very
good reason that they have closely related morphological structure). Linguistics
is a broad field and some parts of the field will be more relevant than others,
but this view of linguistics struck me as a bit naïve. It also perhaps explains
why some of the linguistic aspects of this book are somewhat weak. Chapter 5 in
particular (''linguistic theory needs lexicography'') is quite good on basic
lexical semantics but says almost nothing about productivity (except in the
incorrect definition which equates bound morphemes with unproductive morphemes),
wordhood, derivation vs inflection, and other aspects of word formation which it
would be helpful for a lexicographer to know about explicitly. As it is, the
language model is strongly Anglocentric (for example the English parts of speech
are discussed as though they were linguistic universals).

My second criticism is a little more serious. This book claims to be a
comprehensive ''course for the training of lexicographers in all settings,
including publishing houses, colleges, and universities worldwide.'' However,
this book is strongly oriented towards mass-market print dictionaries in Western
European languages, in particular English as a second language monolingual
learners dictionaries. People who are working on dictionaries of endangered
languages or previously undescribed languages will struggle to find advice
specific to them in this book. Scrolling down the recent publications list of
dictionaries in my university library's catalogue revealed an overwhelming
majority of dictionaries for languages outside the top 20 in terms of speaker
numbers -- the market for such dictionaries may be small, but they comprise a
considerable proportion of new fruits of lexicography growth and it's a shame
they are not better served by a book claiming to be a comprehensive guide to the
field as a whole.

The discussion of electronic dictionaries concentrates heavily on avoiding
information overload and gives only brief mention of some of the advantages of
electronic dictionaries. For example, it doesn't mention the possibility of note
taking tools within the dictionary, personalized lists, fuzzy searches
(extremely useful for language learners and those with limited literacy), and
morphology generators for languages with complex morphology and morphophonemics.
For linguists trying to produce a repository of knowledge about language as well
as a usable volume for language speakers (electronically or in print), the
problems are significant and advice from professional lexicographers is sorely

At least two thirds of the book is predicated on a dictionary writing model
where the lexicographer searches a multimillion word corpus (which has been
compiled by someone else) and then writes an entry according to a format
determined by their senior editor. Some guidance is given here on entry formats
but not nearly enough for someone who is working solo. In fact the book is
pretty discouraging to anyone working on ''small'' languages (presumably as
opposed to a language in one of ''the great language families'' (p140)). There is
nothing in this book about dictionary creation as a tool to discover more about
the semantics of the language, dictionaries as fieldwork and documentation
tools, or collaborative dictionaries with community members.

Claire Bowern is a linguist who has also been involved with dictionary work with
endangered indigenous languages in Australia.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199277702
ISBN-13: 9780199277704
Pages: 552
Prices: U.K. £ 80.00
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0199277710
ISBN-13: 9780199277711
Pages: 552
Prices: U.K. £ 27.99