Dictionaries are a fundamental tool in learning a language, whether it be your native tongue or you're learning English as a foreign language.
You can use them to check your spelling, look up a definition, and verify etymological variations of a word, as well as find out the equivalent term in another language.
But there is so much more to the world of dictionaries than meets the eye.
English dictionaries, in particular, have a rich history from their origins as glossaries or ‘word lists’ which were used by churchgoers to translate biblical texts from Latin into English, to their more recent history concerning regional variations in vocabulary and the entry of new words and phrases.
There are also several types of dictionary, which are compiled according to a certain purpose.
Some dictionaries are purely for checking spellings and whether words exist, and so, they don’t feature any kind of definition alongside the featured words, whereas others show a detailed definition with examples of usage.
As you learn English, it may be helpful to use a monolingual English dictionary alongside as a bilingual one. This will help you move away from learning new words as translations, and broaden your understanding of the English language in the target language.
Of course, the type of dictionary you choose to use will likely be different to those of other English learners, as your choice will depend on your needs and goals.
So here is a guide to English dictionaries: their history, their uses, and how each type may be useful to you as a learner of English as a second language.
The History of English Dictionaries
The first ever dictionaries are thought to have come about in what is now Syria, in around 2300 BC.
These tablets were, in fact, bilingual word lists, but they are nevertheless classed as dictionaries.
This is because such word lists which were used to help readers translate and understand texts in the same ways that modern dictionaries are used in English today, until the publication of the world’s first formal dictionaries thousands of years later.
In medieval Europe, Latin glossaries were among the first books to be printed and became widely adopted as a tool to aid in the interpretation of the bible.
Both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries and word lists became popular across the world for a range of different purposes.
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According to Wikipedia, the earliest English dictionaries were compilations of words from Latinate languages and their translations into English, however, entries were not listed in alphabetical order until later on in Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall, an English monolingual dictionary which was written in 1604.
From this publication, the world of English dictionaries began to develop over the years that followed as others put forward their suggestions and ideas of what a dictionary should be.
Versions of everything ranging from general glossaries to etymological reference books came and went as each author tried to earn the glory of having their publication accepted by the British population.
However, it wasn’t until 1755 - 150 years after Cawdrey’s work - that a simpler, more trustworthy dictionary came to the fore with the publication of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language.
This work was a sort of ‘best-of’, taking the most useful characteristics from the proto-dictionaries that came before it such as alphabetical organisation and textual references.
Because of its usability and helpful features, Johnson’s Dictionary became widely regarded as the standard in its field.
Sadly, for Johnson, however, his masterpiece did not stand the test of time, and the Oxford University Press stole the limelight with their take on the English Dictionary, which began to be published in short volumes from 1884.
This masterpiece known as the Oxford English Dictionary, which was 50 years in the making and finished in 1928, is still regarded as the most comprehensive and reliable work of its kind today.
This enormous guide to the language from the Early Middle English period to modern slang was revised and re-published in 1989, and a new revision is currently under way.
The OED has also stayed up-to-date and taken advantage of modern technologies by developing an online presence and promoting itself as a go-to online resource for English speakers everywhere.
Whilst the Oxford English Dictionary is the respected dictionary of the English-speaking world, regional variations do exist. The most major of these is probably Merriam-Webster, which claims to be America’s most trusted dictionary.
In 1806, Noah Webster, a US citizen, published his first American dictionary.
His goal was to reform English spelling to simplify it for the English learner as well as the native English speaker.
Although relatively few of his suggestions made it into everyday US English writing, his legacy lives on in Merriam-Webster, which bears his name.
Dictionaries for Different Purposes
The origins of the modern-day dictionary as bilingual word lists and biblical glossaries to suit the needs of their users are still present in the dictionaries of today.
Modern dictionaries are split into their own families depending on their purpose, the information they provide, the way in which they deliver the information and where their information is taken from.
Firstly, dictionaries belong to one of two categories: prescriptive and descriptive.
Prescriptive dictionaries define words and explain how to use them based on what is considered proper – that’s to say that even if words take on slightly different meanings or English grammar rules based on the way they’re used, prescriptive dictionaries will focus on the original meaning and usage.
Descriptive dictionaries, on the other hand, define words based on their popular usage, even if it is not deemed ‘correct’.
Today, the majority of popular English language dictionaries are regarded as descriptive, and usually indicate proper use alongside modern alternative definitions marked as ‘informal’ or ‘vulgar’.
Dictionaries are also either bilingual or monolingual, and this is a large part of their purpose.
Bilingual dictionaries provide translations of words and may feature information on their gender (for nouns) as well as their transitivity (for verbs). Some dictionaries go as far as pointing out irregular verbs – which is particularly helpful for language learners.
Monolingual dictionaries, however, only feature information on the vocabulary of one language. Given the fact that no translation is needed, monolingual dictionaries can go into further detail in their definitions, providing information on synonyms, variants, and pronunciation.
Surprisingly, monolingual dictionaries often feature words which are borrowed from other languages yet are in common use in their language. For example, the French word ‘cliché’ may appear.
So, here are some examples of types of dictionary as well as the type of information they provide and how it can be used for different purposes.
- General Purpose Dictionaries
General purpose dictionaries are the most popular types of dictionary, as they can deliver a wide range of information on day-to-day language.
While some general dictionaries provide comprehensive definitions for each word, including information on etymological roots and pronunciation, others are more basic and focus on providing a concise definition for each word.
When it comes to polysemy (words which are spelt the same but have different meanings), some dictionaries list several definitions under the same entry while others have several entries, each with their own definition.
The choice of general dictionary is ultimately down to the user.
Many people keep a more comprehensive and detailed dictionary at home and use a pocket dictionary for their day-to-day use such as checking spellings.
However, with the rise of the World Wide Web and online dictionaries, it’s becoming far easier to access a range of information at the touch of a button.
Thesauri are all about synonyms and are generally used by people looking for a ‘better’ word to use in a given situation.
They provide a list of words with identical or similar meanings under each entry and are particularly useful for finding a word of the same meaning which may be more or less formal.
- Specialist Dictionaries
Specialised dictionaries are not so common in everyday usage, as they exclusively feature specialist terminology for use in a specific field.
For example, medical dictionaries may be used to check usage of medical terms in certain publications.
Specialised dictionaries may also bilingual as well as monolingual, so they can be used in the world of specialised translation.
Glossaries can be likened to a very basic version of a general dictionary, where words only have a definition.
Their purpose is to provide a reference for its users in context.
However, they may also be similar to specialised dictionaries, since they may define a specific area of language or the vocabulary from a certain publication.
- Monolingual Learner’s Dictionaries
Since learning a language is about more than learning words as translations of those of your native language, monolingual learner’s dictionaries are a valuable tool for those who have a good enough knowledge of the target language to be able to use monolingual resources.
Using a monolingual dictionary provides an opportunity for each English learner to get the information they need as a non native speaker whilst learning how to learn to speak English in English.
Choosing a Dictionary to use When Learning English
The first English dictionary you encounter will likely be bilingual, since you will only have a knowledge of basic English. A great tool for eradicating mistakes in spelling.
As you improve your English vocabulary and language skills, you can move on to a monolingual English dictionary.
The first important point to make when it comes to choosing a monolingual dictionary is the type of English you wish to use.
Due to regional variation in spelling and usage, most notably between UK and US English, it is important to choose one system and stick to it to ensure consistency in your English writing.
Your choice may depend on your situation as well as personal preference.
English learner’s dictionaries aren’t hard to come by, and the giants of the dictionary world lead the field.
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So, the dictionary you choose is down to your preferences and your goals. As you study English to a more advanced level, your needs will change in line with your proficiency and new dictionaries will become appropriate.
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