Teaching Lexicography

Janet DeCesaris

Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona

For several years, I taught a class entitled Lexicography in an M.A. program in Applied Linguistics offered by Pompeu Fabra University, a public university in Barcelona, Spain. While this degree program was offered, the class attracted students mainly from Europe and Latin America. My views on teaching lexicography are thus a consequence of this experience.

As with designing any class, an important question for me was to first identify what information and skills I wanted the students to learn in the class. This, of course, partly depended on the background of the students and the goals of the degree program as a whole, but to a large extent depended on priorities I set. I was not going to be able to teach everything there is to know about dictionaries and dictionary-making in one term, so determining what was to be included was a challenge. The following are the topics included in my syllabus, in their original order of presentation:

  1. A brief history of lexicography. Students benefit from having some idea of how dictionaries arose and how lexicography as a field has developed. A commonplace belief about dictionaries is that they have not changed much over the years, and students need to appreciate that lexicography is still changing and incorporating innovative techniques and representations of language.  Students may be unfamiliar with taking a historical perspective in a linguistics class because many language and linguistics programs today concentrate heavily on synchronic analysis and description of the current language. This was true for my students. Nevertheless, I believe the class benefitted tremendously by starting the syllabus with this topic because it allowed me to introduce several fundamental points (such as prescription vs. description, single-author dictionaries vs. large-scale team projects, and the use of corpora, to name but three) that arise over the course of the term.
  2. Dictionary entries. What criteria are used to determine inclusion as headwords? What sort of information do dictionaries provide about words? Do all dictionaries use strict alphabetical order? (No, they don’t, but few students realize this before taking this class.) This very general topic allows the teacher to debunk several widely held misconceptions about dictionaries (e.g. ‘all dictionaries are basically the same,’ or ‘words not in dictionaries are not really part of the language’ because ‘if it’s a valid word, it’s in the dictionary.’ Note the reference to ‘the dictionary’.).
  3. Definitions in monolingual dictionaries. Defining styles. Sense divisions. How much contextual information should be included in the dictionary description of word behavior and distribution?
  4. Bilingual dictionaries and equivalents. Do all words have an equivalent in another language? Is equivalence best applied to words or to senses?
  5. Learner’s dictionaries. Learner’s lexicography needs a separate section primarily because learner’s dictionaries are designed for both encoding and decoding a non-native language (unlike most monolingual dictionaries for adults, which are designed as aids for decoding one’s native language) and as a result have many different features. Many learner’s dictionaries were written by making widespread use of language corpora, which nicely leads into the next section.
  6. Dictionary-making. Sources and documentation. The role of corpora in contemporary dictionary-making. The editorial process.
  7. The relationship between word structure, meaning, and dictionary representation. This may strike some as an unlikely topic with which to conclude the class, as it may not even seem as essential to an introductory course in lexicography as other topics that have not been included. This choice both reflects my personal interest in morphology and lexicology and my belief that many of the tough choices facing lexicographers are rooted in the structure of words, which varies across languages. While it may seem obvious why not all inflected forms are listed in dictionaries, it is not so clear, especially to students whose own experience as dictionary users is primarily digitally based, why large-scale monolingual dictionaries employ strategies such as including run-on entries in definitions or excluding highly predictable forms (e.g. adverbs, words with certain affixes, or semantically transparent compounds). Lexicographers, in addition to inheriting space-saving practices that were necessary for printed books, assume that users are familiar with changes in meaning deriving from productive word-formation, but in my own classes many students were baffled by this because they themselves had little experience thinking about morphology.

Would I choose the same topics today? Yes. I did not devote time to several topics that are traditionally covered in lexicography courses, such as historical dictionaries, the representation of pronunciation, the role of examples, labels and usage, electronic dictionaries, and dictionary use, all of which are arguably just as important as the topics I chose to include. The class described took place over a single term, so it seemed wise to prioritize.

Unfortunately, I no longer teach lexicography because my university embarked upon an internal reorganization that eliminated the M.A. program in Applied Linguistics. We now offer a general M.A. program in linguistics that has a strong theoretical component and the lexicography class did not draw enough students. It has been replaced by a class (taught by someone else) on vocabulary and language teaching that includes a session about learner’s dictionaries, and I am back to teaching about inflection, word-formation, and theories of morphology.

I began this article by stating that my first task in developing a course in lexicography was to determine what I wanted students to learn. If forced to choose only one point, I would say that I wanted students to understand that lexicography is about making choices in language description which are always conditioned by external factors. Over the years, many students found this approach appealing, and I hope that that idea has remained with them.