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Who cares about English? Part 2 Previous Post: Who cares about English? Part 1


Ask a lexicographer: part 2

Every now and again, we like to share a few of the very interesting questions sent to us by users of Oxford Dictionaries. Read on to learn more about the peculiarities of the English alphabet and dictionary history.

The dictionary speaks

Answer: One could argue that dictionaries are called as such because they tell the user how to say things. Or you could say that the Latin word dictio means ‘a word’, and so a dictionary might be seen as a compendium of words.

In fact, the word ‘dictionary’ (in its Latin form dictionarius) appears to have been coined by the Englishman John of Garland in the early 13th century as the title of a children’s textbook written as a guide to Latin composition, and Garland makes clear in his introduction that he is thinking of dictio not so much in its sense ‘word’ but in its sense ‘connected speech’, because by using his guide the learner will be able to put words together to form connected speech.

From A to Z: part 1

Answer: From Questions of English, compiled and edited by Jeremy Marshall and Fred McDonald (Oxford University Press, 1996):

This is an intriguing but unanswerable question. The ancestor of our alphabet is the Phoenician alphabet of nineteen characters (representing only consonants), dating from about the 14th century BC. Around 1000 BC this was used as a model by the Greeks, who added characters to represent vowels. This in turn became the model for the Etruscan alphabet, from which the ancient Roman alphabet, and subsequently all Western alphabets, are derived. Characters have been added over the centuries and others lost, according to the need to represent certain sounds. But the basic order has remained the same. Indeed, it may go back to North Semitic, the ancestor of Phoenician, which developed about 1700 BC. In other words, we do it like this because we’ve always done it like this, but why we did it in the first place, no one knows.

Although the order of alphabetical characters has been established for so long, putting words into alphabetical order has been perfected relatively recently. In medieval times this usually consisted of simply putting together all the words beginning with a, followed by all those with b, and so on. Strict alphabetical order did not become established until after the advent of printing.

Words can be alphabetized in two ways, known respectively as word-by-word and letter-by-letter. In the former, a shorter word will precede all other words beginning with the same sequence of letters, even if the word is followed by another word. In letter-by-letter alphabetization, with characters are considered as a single sequence, with any hyphens and spaces ignored.

From A to Z: part 2

Answer: We mention in our article about dictionaries over time that the earliest form of the English dictionary evolved from glossaries that listed Latin words and their Old English translations. While some of these glossaries listed words alphabetically, others did so thematically. When monolingual and bilingual dictionary-making came into greater prominence in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, lexicographers carried over alphabetical ordering, most likely so that people would have an easy way to find the word and/or definition they are looking for.

There are, however, certain types of dictionaries for which using alphabetical word ordering is either impractical or just a roadmap to getting to the right word or meaning. In cases where a person is looking for a word, but only knows its definition or related words, reference books like reverse dictionaries and the Roget-style thesaurus categorize words by their key concept or semantic class first to help people find the exact word. While the general themes or meanings are typically sorted alphabetically, it’s not uncommon to find the words that belong to these classifications sorted differently.

Additionally, languages that have character-based writing systems, such as Chinese or Korean, have adopted many different methods of ordering logograms. For instance, the system used in the Oxford Chinese Dictionary can be as involved as ordering by pronunciation, tone, stroke number, and first stroke in the character.

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