Dictionaries – what are they for?

Many people see dictionaries as major sources of authority on language-related matters. If a word is not in the dictionary, then it can’t possibly exist, even if you hear it every day in the conversations of others. Dictionaries are there to tell us what words ‘really mean’, and how they ‘should’ be used and pronounced. These types of attitudes could be called prescriptive.

There is however another view of the function of dictionaries: that they should provide a description that is as objective as possible of a particular language, including information about pronunciation, meanings, etymology and usage.

While composing this, I starting wondering whether anybody has ever compiled an oral dictionary, i.e. a dictionary of spoken language consisting of recordings of words, definitions and examples of usage. Such a dictionary would be very interesting, and particularly useful for language students.

This post was inspired by one of the books I’m reading at the moment: Proper English – Myths and Misunderstandings about Language, by Ronald Wardhaugh.

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3 Responses to Dictionaries – what are they for?

  1. gee says:

    I am not sure whether a real oral dictionary exist but I have dictionary which contains phrases used by young people (so it is sort of a slang dictionary) in several languages along with a short explaination for each entry.

    There is a website that may interest you:
    http://www.urbandictionary.com/

    I am not sure that’s what you meant though.

  2. TJ says:

    Well, what you are suggesting is somehow already used in the field of “Field Linguistics.” Maybe it is not an audio dictionary exactly as the word suggests, but as I read, the researcher would collect audio samples as much as possible that would help him to understand the sounds of the language and other grammatical processes in the language under study.

  3. Simon says:

    I’m not entirely sure what I mean by an oral/audio dictionary. It was just a bit of idle speculation that I sometimes indulge in.

    Many of words the appear in dictionaries are those used in written language and the usage examples are generally taken from written sources – literature, newspapers, magazines, etc. A dictionary that focused on spoken language, with usage examples from every day conversations, speeches, radio, TV and films, would be very interesting and useful, I think.