Stefan Dollinger—Forks in the road: Dictionaries and the radically changing English-language ecosystem (EAC-BC meeting)

Stefan Dollinger, faculty member in the English and linguistic departments at the University of British Columbia, is editor-in-chief of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP), and he spoke to the EAC-BC crowd about the role of dictionaries in the global English landscape.

His fascinating talk covered some of the same territory that I wrote about when I first saw him speak last year, so I’ll focus on his new content here.

English, said Dollinger, is unique in that it is the only language in the world with more second-language speakers than native speakers, the former outnumbering the latter by five to one. This ratio will only grow as more people in China, Russia, continental Europe, and South America use English for trade and diplomacy. Until recently, the study of English—particularly for dictionaries—had focused on native speakers, but scholars such as Barbara Seidlhofer, of the University of Vienna, have argued that English as a lingua franca (ELF) is the “real” English.

This shifting view influences how we approach dictionary making, which has generally used one of two methods:

  • In the literary tradition, lexicographers collect works from the best authors and compiled excerpts showing usage.
  • In the linguistic method, lexicographers empirically study language users.

One of the best examples of dictionaries compiled using the linguist method is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which Dollinger said is based on superb empirical data, including historical sources as well as a national survey of about three thousand users. The dictionary includes only “non-standard” regional words that are not used nationally in the United States and hence isn’t a comprehensive compilation of English words, but for researchers like Dollinger, the detail on regional, social, and historical uses is more important than the number of entries.

In contrast, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) used the literary tradition, and, as the preface to the third edition admits,

The Dictionary has in the past been criticized for its apparent reliance on literary texts to illustrate the development of the vocabulary of English over the centuries. A closer examination of earlier editions shows that this view has been overstated, though it is not entirely without foundation.

Although the OED has become more linguistic in its methodology, residues of the literary tradition persist: Dolliger said that about 50 percent of the entries the current edition, OED-3, are unchanged from the original edition, and although the OED employs a New Word Unit, a group of lexicographers who read content on the web and compile new words and senses, such a reading program is still not empirical and will fail to capture the usage of everyday speakers.

Going completely online, however, has allowed the OED to respond more nimbly to changes in the language: corrections to existing entries can now be made immediately, and the dictionary issues quarterly updates, adding a few hundred new words, phrases, and senses each time.

Dollinger feels that if the OED wants to keep claiming to be the “definitive record of the English language,” though, it will have to reorient its approach to include more fieldwork to study linguistic variation across the globe, focusing not only on what linguist Braj Kachru defined as the “inner circle,” where the majority of people are native English speakers (e.g., the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand) but also on the “outer circle” of former British colonies like India, Singapore, etc., and especially on the “expanding circle” of countries, like Russia and China, with no historical ties to England—not to mention English-based pidgins and creoles. Although some native speakers may consider this shift threatening, Dollinger quoted H.G. Widdowson, who in 1993 wrote:

How English develops in the world is no business whatever of native speakers in England, the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant. The very fact that English is an international language means that no nation can have custody over it. To grant such custody of the language is necessarily to arrest its development and so undermine its international status.

How, then, do lexicographers distinguish innovations from errors? World Englshes are replete with words that are unfamiliar to the native speaker, like

  • stingko, meaning “smelly” in Singapore English;
  • teacheress, a female teacher, in Indian English;
  • peelhead, a bald-headed person, in Jamaican English; or
  • high hat, a snob in Philippine English

Whether these are right depends only on the variety of English in question. Linguist Ayo Bamgbose suggested using the following criteria to judge whether a word or phrase is an error or innovation:

  • The demographic factor: How many acrolectal speakers speak it?
  • The geographical factor: Where is it used?
  • The authoritative factor: Who sanctions its use?
  • Codification: Does it appear in dictionaries and reference books?
  • The acceptability factor: What are the attitudes of users an non-users toward the word?

Dollinger is applying some of these principles to his work on DCHP, the first edition of which (now known as DCHP-1) began as a bit of a pet project for American lexicographer Charles Lovell. As a researcher for A Dictionary of Americanisms, published in 1951, Lovell began collecting Canadianisms. In 1958, Gage Educational Publishing asked Lovell to compile a dictionary for the Canadian Linguistic Association. After Lovell’s sudden death in 1960, Gage approached Walter S. Avis, known as “the pioneer of the study of Canadian English” and Matthew H. Scargill to continue his work. Together they finished and edited the dictionary and published it in 1967. That dictionary became the basis of Gage’s Canadian dictionary.

The 1990s saw a “Canadian Dictionary War,” with too many publishers—Gage Canadian, ITP Nelson, and the Canadian Oxford—competing in one market. Backed by a fierce marketing campaign, the Canadian Oxford won out.

In March 2006, Dollinger became editor-in-chief of the second edition of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP-2), with Nelson Education providing seed funding. In 2013, DCHP-1 was released online, and Dollinger expects DCHP-2 to be complete in early 2016. Owing to time constraints, some entries from DCHP-1, which dug deep into the history of the fur trade for much of its content, will persist in DCHP-2, but these will be clearly marked as being from the original edition and annotated if necessary.

In compiling DCHP-2, Dollinger has noticed that some terms have considerable regional variation and wonders whether we should be considering national isoglosses at all, considering the U.S. and Canada have the world’s longest undefended border. As an example, he showed that whereas Western Canadians prefer the term “running shoes” or “runners,” those in Eastern Canada prefer “sneakers,” which mirrors the regional variation across the northern United States. He also noted that these kinds of variations would be much harder to identify through the literary method of dictionary making.

Another interesting feature of the entries in DCHP-2 is that 70 percent of the entries are compound nouns. “Butter isn’t uniquely Canadian, tart isn’t Canadian, but butter tart is,” said Dollinger. “Cube isn’t Canadian, and van isn’t Canadian, but cube van is.”

Dollinger wondered too if it was time for lexicographers to get even more granular and consider the variation within regional Englishes. In what ways, for example, might English spoken by a Chinese Canadian be unique?

As part of his research, Dollinger is asking British Columbians to complete a twenty-minute survey to help him and his students understand how they use English.

Stefan Dollinger on the changing expectations of the Oxford English Dictionary

Until December 24, 2013, Rare Books and Special Collections at the UBC Library is running an exhibition, The Road to the Oxford English Dictionary, that traces the history of English lexicography and the work that eventually led to the OED. To kick off this exhibition, Stefan Dollinger, assistant professor in the English department at UBC and editor-in-chief of The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, gave a free public lecture titled “Oxford English Dictionary, the Grimm Brothers, and Miley Cyrus: On the Changing Expectations of the OED—Past, Present, and (Possible) Futures.”

The OED, said Dollinger, bills itself as “the definitive record of the English language.” So what happens when you try to look up a recently coined word like “twerk”? The Oxford English Dictionary itself returns

No dictionary entries found for ‘twerk’.

but, the contemporary dictionary, gives this definition:

Pronunciation: /twəːk/
[no object] informal

dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance:

just wait till they catch their daughters twerking to this song

twerk it girl, work it girl

Will words like “twerk” and “bootylicious” eventually make their way into the OED? We don’t usually expect these kinds of neologisms to become accepted by the dictionary so quickly, but earlier this year, the OED quietly added the social media sense of the word “tweet,” breaking its rule that a word has to be current for ten years before it’s considered for inclusion—a move that possibly signals a change in our expectations of the dictionary.

Dollinger took a step back to the roots of the OED. As much as Oxford University Press would like to claim that the dictionary was a pioneering publication, a lot of the groundwork for the kind of lexicography used to put it together had been laid by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm a few years earlier when they published the first volume of their German language dictionary (Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm). Nor is the OED‘s the world’s largest monolingual dictionary; that distinction belongs to the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (Dictionary of the Dutch language), with over 430,000 entries running almost 50,000 pages. Is the OED the most historically important dictionary? Dollinger offered the contrasting example of the Dictionary of American Regional English, a project of the American Dialect Society, which used detailed questionnaires to collect rigorous regional, social, and historical data about words used in American English. Although the number of entries pales in comparison with the OED, the level of detail is unparalleled and probably more important to researchers of the English language.

Still, there’s no denying that the OED has been extremely influential and is still considered an authoritative resource. Dollinger gave us a run-down of the dictionary’s history.

In November 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster Abbey, addressed the Philological Society in London in a talk later published as On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries. In this publication, which planted the seeds of the OED, Trench outlined seven problems with existing dictionaries:

I. Obsolete words are incompletely registered; some inserted, some not; with no reasonable rule adduced for the omission of these, the insertion of those other.

II. Families or groups of words are often imperfect, some members of a family inserted, while others are omitted.

III. Oftentimes much earlier examples of the employment of words exist than any which our Dictionaries have cited; indicating that they were earlier introduced into the language than these examples would imply; and in case of words now obsolete, much later, frequently marking their currency at a period long after that when we are left to suppose that they passed out of use.

IV. Important meanings and uses of words are passed over; sometimes the later alone given, while the earlier, without which the history of words will be often maimed and incomplete, or even unintelligible, are unnoticed.

V. Comparatively little attention is paid to the distinguishing of synonymous words.

VI. Many passages in our literature are passed by, which might be usefully adduced in illustration of the first introduction, etymology, and meaning of words.

VII. And lastly, our Dictionaries err in redundancy as well as in defect, in the too much as well as the too little; all of them inserting some things, and some of them many things, which have properly no claim to find room in their pages.

Trench’s recommendations included using quotations to show usage, a practice now known as the “OED method” but that should, accordingly to Dollinger, perhaps more accurately be termed the “Grimm method,” seeing as they used the same approach for their Wörterbuch. Trench also wrote

A Dictionary, then, according to that idea of it which seems to me alone capable of being logically maintained, is an inventory of the language… It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray. The business which he has undertaken is to collect and arrange all the words, whether good or bad, whether they commend themselves to his judgment or otherwise, which, with certain exceptions hereafter to be specified, those writing in the language have employed.

This most progressive thought of Trench’s echoes the Grimms, who, three years earlier, in their 1854 Wörterbuch, had written

“And here the difference between adorned language and vulgar (raw) language comes into effect… Should the dictionary list the indecent words or should they be left out?… The dictionary, if it is supposed to be worth its salt, is not here to hide words, but to show them… one must not try to eradicate such words and expressions.”

Trench, incidentally, never acknowledged any of the Grimms’ innovations, many of which the OED‘s lexicographers (consciously or unconsciously) borrowed.

In 1879, Oxford University Press appointed James A.H. Murray as editor-in-chief of the OED, and he edited more than half of the entries in the first edition. In 1928, the dictionary was published in twelve volumes, at which point it already needed updating. William Craigie and C.T. Onions edited a supplement, published in 1933; the thirteen volumes together are referred to collectively as OED1. Edmund Weiner and John Simpson co-edited the dictionary’s second edition, OED2, which was published in print in 1989 and on CD-ROM in 1992.

Did these editors follow Trench’s suggestion that the OED be a comprehensive inventory of the language? Dollinger noted that colonial bias in Victorian times, and consequently, in the OED, was pervasive, and despite the editors’ best intentions of keeping the dictionary up to date, likely more than 50 percent of the original entries remain unchanged. Dollinger argued that perhaps the tagline “The definitive record of the English language” should more accurately read “The definitive record of the English language (as seen by Oxford [mostly] men largely of the [upper] middle class).” For instance, the dictionary has long been criticized for relying on literary texts for examples of usage. Dollinger offered the example of “sea-dingle,” whose OED entry reads as follows:

sea-dingle n. (now only arch.) an abyss or deep in the sea.

a1240 Sowles Warde in Cott. Hom. 263 His runes ant his domes þe derne beoð ant deopre þen eni sea dingle [= abyss of the sea: cf. Ps. xxxv. 6 Vulg. Judicia tua abyssus multa].

c1931 W.H. Auden in M. Roberts New Signatures (1932) 30 Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.

Yet, as Seth Lerer has noted, W.H. Auden (an Oxford man) “mined the OED for archaic, pungent words.” Does his use of the word really reflect common usage? Not, said Dollinger, if you look at the Urban Dictionary entry for the term:

1. sea-dingle

A sex act involving two people in which salmon roe is used as lubrication facilitating anal penetration by a penis.

Yeah, I was out camping with my wife. I got lucky when we went fishing and then again when we went back to the tent. She was totally down for a sea-dingle.

(This practice of recycling old terms in a “reification of literary writers” brought to my mind this XKCD cartoon on citogenesis.)

Dollinger pointed out a problem with the way the OED describes itself:

the Oxford English Dictionary is an irreplaceable part of English culture. It not only provides an important record of the evolution of our language, but also documents the continuing development of our society.

What is “English culture,” and what is “our”? In other words, who owns English? As early as the late 1960s, linguist David Crystal noted that, in order to be a comprehensive record of English, the OED would have to include World Englishes. Today the number of people who speak English as a second language outnumber native speakers five to one, and they use a kind of global English for trade and other interactions. Who are native speakers to say that their terms—handy for “cell phone” in Euro-English, prepone for “rescheduling to an earlier time” in Indo-English, and batchmate for “cohort member” in Philippine English—aren’t proper English usage?

As far as Dollinger is concerned, the OED is at a crossroads and can go down one of three paths:

  1. Take an Inner Circle focus (i.e., UK, Australia, New Zealand, North America, South Africa).
  2. Retreat to focus on British English only (which would in itself be a challenging task, owing to the variations of English spoken across the country).
  3. Include all World Englishes, in which case the dictionary should treat the Inner, Outer and Expanding circles on an equal footing. If its aim is truly to be the “principal dictionary of record for the English language throughout the lifetime of all current users of the language,” as the preface to the third edition of the OED claims, this path is the only logical choice.

Dollinger closed by encouraging all of us to check out the exhibition at Rare Books and Special Collections.Road to the OED poster