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REVIEWARTICLE Language Mavens Learn Cybernetics: General Use Electronic Dictionaries Jeffrey Ford The American Heritage Talking Dictionary, Third Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992. Softkey International, Inc. El Dorado Hills, CA, 1994. $29.95. Webster's New World Dictionary, Third Edition, with the American Concise Encyclopedia onPowerCD. Dallas, TX: ZCI Publishing, Inc., 1995. f19.95. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Deluxe Electronic Edition. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1994. $49.95. The potential transformation of the publishing industry by computers is, for many, a topic with strong apocalyptic overtones. Like most cosmic predictions , the visions of the technological future are filled with color, spectacle, and drama, but also with a good deal of mystery. It is difficult to grasp precisely what is to come, and the issues in the debates between those who long for innovation and those who cling to the forms that are familiar and manageable tend to be rather mundane. In the case of electronic publishing, the arguments usually center on issues of economics and ecology. But the strongest feelings probably are rooted in aesthetics. The beauty and portability ofthe printed book, its contribution to interior decorating, its essential role in constructing the image of the scholar laboring at a wooden table by lamplight or of the contemplative individual seated in a leather chair by the fire is set against the emotional rush ofpower measured in megabytes, efficiency measured in nanoseconds, and instantaneous access from the keyboard and screen to the whole world. If the book symbolizes solitude and contemplation, the computer stands for active interventions at the cutting edge. Dictionaries are something of a special case. In their traditional form, they can be beautiful and they can make an important contribution to the construction of an atmosphere (particularly if situated on a suitably designed 208 _____ ______ Jeffrey Ford stand), but in use, they are quite different from most other books. They lack a linear, unfolding structure. The distinctions between beginning, middle, and end seem as arbitrary as the ordering of the alphabet. And they are extremely repetitious. Their editors dutifully execute the same analytic procedures over and over again with each entry. Everyone who approaches them begins reading in a different place. We generally turn to the dictionary in an active mode seeking a specific item of information. Apart from economic and ecological issues, perhaps the greatest advantage claimed for electronic publishing is the facilitation of information retrieval —the ability to quickly locate occurrences of words or phrases within a text. In addition, readers (or users) of electronic publications can search the contents of the text in an order of their own design, and even in an order quite different from that which the creators of the data bases and tools designed or conceived of. It would seem that these advantages would be particularly relevant to the use of dictionaries. The dictionary provides a variety of kinds of information about words—spellings, pronunciations, grammatical classifications, meanings , usage contexts, history—and the classifications of information remain more or less consistent from entry to entry. Certainly, the principal limitation of the printed dictionary is that it affords only one route to this information: the main entries, arranged alphabetically. In earlier times, this limitation led to the production of specialized dictionaries, which afford a single alternate route to information designed to answer a specific need. Surely, the search facilities that could be brought to bear on electronic texts would exponentially increase the accessibility of the valuable information about language that dictionaries contain . It is somewhat surprising that the development of electronic dictionaries seems to have lagged behind other forms of electronic publication. Electronic versions of the Bible and of other canonical texts are abundant, as are encyclopedias (general and more specialized). A survey ofthe current offerings in the field suggests a reason: the theoretical possibilities that dictionaries offer in electronic format are considerably more extensive than those of most electronic texts; at the same time, the practical difficulties in realizing these possibilities are very challenging, and solving the problems requires particularly close cooperation and communication between the lexicographer and the expert in digital technologies. The term "electronic dictionary" has been used with a variety of meanings . The earliest uses...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 207-224
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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