Catherine Sangster on the descriptive, the subversive, and the dictionary (part two)
Catherine Sangster, Oxford Dictionaries’ head of pronunciations, was interviewed by The Doctor for Epicurean Cure following her appearance at Nine Worlds 2016. This is the second part of an edited two-part version.
The Doctor: So the point of Oxford Dictionaries is to reflect usage rather than prescribe it. What are your thoughts on institutions such as – and please excuse my bastardising of the French language [TD prepares herself to pronounce French with an Aussie accent] – the Academie Francaise, which attempt to control the evolution of language?
Catherine Sangster: I’m glad to be working in the English language where that isn’t seen as the way to go. English’s role in the world is rather different – English’s position as a global language is special – and there’s so much diversity in English, within the British Isles and around the world. I’m glad that there’s a general recognition that description rather than prescription is the way to go, and that’s certainly something that underpins what we (and not just in the pronunciation but in definition and in all aspects of a dictionary entry), my colleagues and I would be guided by. ‘How is this word actually used? ‘What do people mean by it when they say it?’ Which is not to say ‘throw away the etymology! Throw away the historical!’; the Oxford English Dictionary especially is a historical dictionary, so as a word’s meaning evolves, all of those definitions would be recorded in order in the entry.
Think about the pedant’s favourites, a word like ‘decimate’, where people will say ‘no, you have to mean you’ll kill one in ten!’ Yes it can mean that, and it can mean other things as well, and so recording both of those is really important, and is part of the job of what dictionary writing is. Lexicography is very different from language control. Organisations like the Academie Francaise seem to operate in a different sphere, their role seems to be to rule and to prescribe, and not necessarily to embrace language change in all its forms, as it happens.
One thing is that we do give more than one pronunciation for things, and that’s a good example of actually when something changes. You might have a loanword for instance for a piece of food or something, that comes in from another language and when it comes in there’s a very foreign-like pronunciation that some people use, and then a very spelling-like pronunciation, so something like ‘chorizo’ or ‘bruschetta’: all these ones that people feel they get tripped up by. In that kind of situation we would probably record both: we’d have the pronunciation that would possibly be used by the foodie expert for whom authenticity is really important…
…possibly with knowledge of the original language, and then a generally acceptable spelling-based pronunciation that maybe becomes the majority usage. Now there’d be arguments for dropping either one of those: people might say ‘oh you know, nobody actually says this anymore, so we shouldn’t even give it’, or ‘this is truly correct, and so we shouldn’t drop it just because 7/10 people say ‘chorizo’’. It’s nice that we can accommodate them both, which is quite different from the prescriptive vision.
TD: So, given that you can have multiple pronunciations of a word, and presumably multiple meanings of a word, […] can dictionaries ever be subversive?
CS: I’d say lexicographers can certainly be subversive, yeah! There’s not a lot of scope for subversion in the pronunciation part of a dictionary entry, although probably not none; the decision for instance to include the northern ‘A’ (bath, glass) [rhyming with ass, not arse] forms subverted the norm of giving only the close RP versions.
In parts of the dictionary that aren’t my specialism I’m wary of speaking for my colleagues too much, but say you have a dictionary entry: as well as the pronunciation, part of speech, definition, and the etymology, you’d have some quotations or example sentences.
Those are drawn from massive corpora of real data –we don’t make them up, they just exist in the world and an editor picks a few to illustrate exactly how the word might be used. Now if you’re picking three from a hundred, in exercising that choice you might subvert people’s expectations. For instance if it were a word that was particularly associated with one sort of thing you might – and you’d do it partly for lexicographical reasons because you want to demonstrate the range – pick one that would surprise or upset expectations. I invited my colleague Fiona McPherson to weigh in on this, she says:
FM: The main purpose in selecting the quotation evidence is, of course, to reflect the way the term you are defining is used. I’m looking for apt, clear examples which help the reader to understand, rather than baffle them – otherwise I’m not doing my job. In saying that, it is the one area where we can get a little creative. All other things being equal, I do get a kick out of choosing an example from one of my favourite books, or perhaps one that shows my football team in a good light. I do also enjoy choosing a publication that is more unusual – maybe something that is less canonical than those which spring to mind when you think of the OED. Working as I do with new words, you often get that opportunity as those publications tend to be where that type of vocabulary is found. But that is only possible if the quotation is one which aids understanding. That always has to be the main objective.
TD: How would you explain the concept of a dictionary to an alien?
CS: Well, what’s the alien’s language? Does the alien have language in the way we understand it?
TD: Yes, let’s assume that there is some way to actually communicate with the alien.
CS: Okay. I’m going to restrict myself to talking about the pronunciation bits of the dictionary.
TD: Fair enough.
CS: Assuming the alien had some language, and that their language was produced physiologically by some part of their alien anatomy, I would say: these symbols here, the transcription symbols, are just a sequential indication of which bit of your anatomy – which bit of alien anatomy – interacts with which other bit of alien anatomy, to produce the sounds which combine to make the language.
TD: That’s an excellent description! And probably helpful to non-aliens as well to be honest.