And What Does Google Say? – Web Search Results under Scrutiny: From Traditional to Web-Based Lexicography

author: Mojca Šorli, University of Ljubljana
published: July 27, 2018,   recorded: July 2018,   views: 12


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Research into dictionary use has increased dramatically in the last decade (e.g., Dziemanko 2012; Lew 2011a,c; Müller-Spitzer 2012, 2014; Nesi 2012; Welker 2010), yet many questions remain unanswered. While the potential for improving dictionary functionalities has been explored, particularly as a result of digitalisation and the advancement of language technologies, less attention has been focused on newly identifiable relationships, such as that between lexical resources on the Web and so-called “traditional” resources. It is often emphasised that contemporary dictionary users are not sensitive to the authority of professional dictionary publishers, instead prioritising ease of access and of use. However, the transition to predominantly web-based dictionaries and lexical resources has been marked by more than one paradox in a time when lexicography is moving “towards information science” (Tarp 2012; Verlinde et al. 2010). In fact, Sinclair’s prediction of lexicography operating “at the intersection of Linguistics and Information Technology” goes way back (1984: 6). We may be inclined to generalise about users’ search preferences along the lines of “users consult Google/ the Web rather than individual (web-based or electronic) dictionaries”, but such assertions may be misleading. There are two things that should be kept in mind here. The first is that a Google search merely aggregates web-based lexical resources (dictionaries, thesauruses, word reference forums, etc.) rather than offering linguistic solutions. The second is that, as a consequence, it offers links to existing (predominantly traditional) lexical resources, notably dictionaries. In the first part of the present article, we examine the first page of Google searches on selected single words and phrases and on this basis seek to establish (better: revise) the role of traditional – that is, edited – dictionaries featured in so-called “Google searches”. As a search engine that can be used to organise and select web-based text according to the user’s needs, Google is obviously not in itself a (lexical/linguistic) resource, but we perceive it as such because it is now a starting point for enquiries and data searches of all forms. Nevertheless, as pointed out, we will most likely be directed by Google to established (edited) lexicographic works with long publishing traditions (competing for prominence on the leading search engine pages) or to products of collaborative lexicography. Once we have clarified the distinctions (and overlaps) between “web-based” resources and their “traditional” counterparts (be it in paper or CD-ROM and DVD format), on the one hand, and between “traditional” – in the sense “professionally edited” – and “collaborative” resources, on the other, we can finally examine which aspects of the “new” dictionary in terms of content may appeal to the majority of dictionary users/ compilers. Existing research into dictionary use suggests that most users appreciate aspects such as data based on actual usage, authentic examples, regular updates of data, accessibility of information, hyperlinks, clear definitions, etc. In the second part of the article, we are dealing with aspects of lexicographic description shared by collaborative lexicography and some directions of professional lexicography. Lexicographers can learn a lot about users’ needs and expectations from alternative approaches to language description, such as Urban Dictionary or Wictionary. The stated aim of Wictionary, for example, is “to include not only the definition of a word, but also enough information to really understand it” ( It was John Sinclair who, decades ago, initiated a long tradition of empirical lexical analysis that provided a scientific basis for expanding lexicographic description to do just that. However, despite the technological advances, much remains to be done in the way of making dictionary “a device through which the user will observe the living language ... language through the dictionary ... the next target of progressive lexicography” (1987: 5). This would involve shifting the focus from word-based to text-based dictionaries. In order to explore what this really means, we will, limiting ourselves to defining practices, analyse the relationship between well-established mainstream monolingual dictionaries and some examples of collaborative lexicography. Typically, collaborative lexicography includes data on circumstances of meaning, giving greater prominence to the evaluative function of words in social interaction, which is guided by social convention. We seek to demonstrate that including this kind of information in communicatively orientated lexical resources is important.

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