How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?

Read anything good recently? You don't have to write a review. If it was good, mention it here. If it was rotten, mention it here.

Please include both the name of the book and its author(s) in the title of your posting. Our gratitude for your considerateness will be your reward!
Post Reply

How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Sep 13, 2014 3:23 am

In an article published on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, Lynne Murphy, Reader in Linguistics at the University of Sussex, looks at how appeals to linguistic authority, as evidenced by such things as how definitions taken from the dictionary shape legislation and legal verdicts, are regarded differently by the society and institutions of Britain and America respectively. She concludes that a descriptive approach is the norm in Britain, whereas prescriptivist interpretations tend to prevail in the USA:
One big general-purpose British dictionary’s cover tells us it is ‘The Language Lover’s Dictionary’. [...] None of the American dictionary marketers talk about loving words. They think you’re unsure about language and want some help.

Re: How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Thu Sep 18, 2014 3:22 pm

There is going to be an unavoidable descriptivist element unless the actual dictionary one has to use is mandatory, and a decision is made on how to interpret words whose different senses can lead to different interpretations. For instance, is a 'war on terrorism' a legally-defined 'war'? Which definition of 'hurricane' should one use? Was a famous British PM being economical with the truth when he dredged up an all-encompassing sense of 'pragmatic': 'pertaining to affairs of state'.

Re: How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?

Post by Phil White » Sat Sep 20, 2014 9:04 pm

While I have no reasons to doubt the findings of the research, in particular in respect of the judiciary, I strongly sense that the vast majority of people in the UK place considerable trust in the authority of dictionaries in general and the OED in particular, although few actually know that of all the dictionaries published by Oxford, only one is the OED.

One only needs to look at many of the discussions on this and other similar sites to see that it is commonly argued that "xxx" in a given sentence cannot mean "abc" because that meaning cannot be found in any of the dictionaries, where "xxx" patently does mean "abc" as indicated by context or some other means. Meaning "abc" is labelled "wrong" because it is not listed.

Other countries such as Germany and France have de facto or statutory organs that actually prescribe spelling, and sometimes grammar.

The situation in Germany is interesting. Since the end of the 19th century, a single dictionary/suite of dictionaries has dominated the German market, namely the Duden. In the post-war years, the suite of dictionaries grew to 12 volumes, covering meanings, spelling (yes, two separate volumes, god only knows why), foreign words, idioms, grammar, and so on.
From 1954 to 1996, the Duden spelling dictionary was prescribed for use in all governmental and administrative agencies. This had several consequences:
  • As far as I know, it was never actually prescribed for use in schools, but I know of no other dictionary being used.
  • The use of the spelling dictionary as an authoritative source implicitly gave greater authority to the remaining dictionaries of the suite, in particular the grammar.
  • All publishing houses and teaching institutions for professions such as secretaries adopted the Duden if it was not in use already.
  • Only one other dictionary (Wahrig) was able to establish itself to any extent.
  • The universal use of the Duden spelling dictionary in government agencies and teaching institutions meant that it became a de facto (prescriptive) standard in business and privately, as did, by extension, the other volumes.
  • The word "Duden" was, and still is, used as a generic word for a dictionary.
In 1996, when the spelling of the German language was reformed (the new spelling being mandatory in schools and generally officially prescribed in public authorities), the Duden spelling dictionary lost its authoritative status, although the various versions published since 1996 remain a de facto standard, as the reform (which has itself twice been amended) essentially only covers words whose spellings have changed or which might have been expected to have changed but didn't (or indeed which were changed in 1996 and reverted back in the second or third amendments, ...).

While the spelling reform technically removed the stamp of authority from Duden, its image is unscathed, in particular as the actual reform document is pretty well impenetrable, and most public authorities have committed themselves to the use of "dictionaries that guarantee adherence to the current version of the spelling reform".

We can count ourselves lucky. Most Germans above the age of 35 or so no longer have a clue how to spell.

As I say, the legal position only affected the spelling dictionary, but all the Duden dictionaries remain, in the minds of most people, absolutely authoritative. Which is a pity, because Wahrig was by far the better general purpose dictionary.

Against that background, I would be extremely surprised if the Duden were not regarded as authoritative by the judiciary as well.

And I could bore you all still witlesser by explaining why the vast bulk of the reform is nonsense.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Post Reply