Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dictionaries versus Lexicons

I’ve been kept busy this past week doing some urgent professional translating. I came out of retirement to help some Spaniards going to work in Canada, because Canada and Spain don’t recognise the accreditations of one another’s officially ‘certified’ translators, so documents to be filed in Canada can‘t be translated by a Spanish traductor jurado. That’s not so surprising: the two countries don’t accredit one another’s driving licences either. Protectionism? Mistrust? Administrative lethargy?

To come back to this blog, the June 9 post ended with an undertaking to say something about the dictionaries inside our own heads. I was reminded of it this week by an article listed among the Most Popular Stories Now on BBC News: “Caffeine found in two strong cups [of coffee] impaired word recall.” A reminder that our mental lexicons are subject to the failings and vagaries of memory; printed or computer-stored dictionaries have the advantage that they don’t forget. On the other hand, we have to feed the dictionaries entry by entry, whereas lexicons can learn by themselves.

(Psychologists call our mental word storages lexicons, so I’ll follow their example and keep dictionaries for the external kind.)

There are numerous fascinating mysteries about lexicons, and more particularly the lexicons of bilinguals and hence of translators. For instance, does a bilingual have two separate lexicons or a single lexicon with the ‘entries’ marked for each language? We tend to think in terms of separate word listings, because that’s how the dictionaries are usually organised. But the other way is conceivable, and in fact I used to own an English/French dictionary, the Bellows, that had a single alphabetical listing. As the New York Times reviewer of the first American edition wrote:
This enabled him [Bellows] to save a good deal of space by giving only once… words that are identical in both languages. A further advantage is that in the case of words that are similar in spelling but not in meaning, the reader can glance at both, and get knowledge of distinctions and comparative value, which often he would forego had he to turn to another part of the book.
Psycholinguists, seeking to make discoveries with their new tool of magnetic resonance imaging, are very interested in where a bilingual’s two languages are located physically in the brain. If there are two lexicons, one for each language, do their neuronal representations overlap or are they served by separate areas? An open question.

Another Bellows innovation was to print all the masculine French headwords in Roman font and the feminine ones in italics. Thus gender information was conveyed instantly, without need to look for an m. or f. label. But how is grammatical gender coded in the lexicon? I notice, for instance, that some French speakers, when asked whether a word is masculine or feminine, reply by associating it with the definite article: la dent, le fleuve. In other cases, words themselves have a ‘flavour’ that informs implicitly: for instance, that a word ending in the sound -sion is feminine.

That brings us to two of the most obvious characteristics of the lexicon: it’s sound based and it’s random access. Even illiterate people have lexicons. Yes, there are some special dictionaries that list by sound, notably rhyming dictionaries. But we can ask our lexicon to find us words by sounds that occur anywhere in the word and to do so quickly without having to hunt through a list: for instance, words that include the f sound, and in a twinkling mine retrieved photo, atrophy and cough as well as fool.

Words, however, are two sided. One aspect is their form, their sound or spelling. The other is their ‘meaning’, the concepts they trigger or are triggered by. They wouldn’t be of any use if they were only forms, and they wouldn’t serve for communication if they were only concepts. Words that sound very different are translations of one another in different languages if they share, at least partially, the same concept. But do our lexicons in different languages have each its own store of concepts or do they share a single store? More to come.

A coffee can make you forgetful. BBC News, June 27, 2010.

John Earnshaw Bellows. John Bellows and his French dictionary: issued to mark the 75th anniversary of the publication in April, 1873, of John Bellow's French and English pocket dictionary. Gloucester: Bellows, 1948. The dictionary went through many editions, right up until the mid-20th century.

A new French dictionary. The New York Times, December 17, 1873.

Michel Paradis. A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2004.

Photo: BBC