Different Types of Dictionaries

Term Paper 2003 24 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents


1. Definition: What Is a Dictionary?

2. Different Types of Dictionaries
2. 1 Dictionaries
2. 2 Encyclopedias

3. The Organisation of a Dictionary Entry

4. Dictionaries Examined in this Report

5. Empirical Examination of Dictionary Entries
5. 1 The General Item
5. 2 The Encyclopedic Item
5. 3 The Regional Item

6. Conclusion

Works Cited

Dictionaries Used


There is a vast amount of different dictionaries available for users of the English language. All these dictionaries share the aspect that they provide information about English words and items, but they are also very different and need to be distinguished from each other. One may need a dictionary in one case and the same dictionary may be absolutely useless when one tries to solve another problem.

“Monolingual learners’, general monolingual, and bilingual dictionaries present a problem: in spite of what may be advertised on the outside cover of these texts, no single dictionary can adequately serve all users. A variety of dictionaries is required to suit the backgrounds, needs, and expectations of individual language learners” (BATTENBURG 24).

So different users and different questions require different dictionaries. One needs to know where to find the information asked for in a particular case, and one certainly needs more than one dictionary for different aspects of the English language. To avoid getting lost here, it is necessary to distinguish between the different types of dictionaries that exist.

This report provides some suggestions for distinction, amongst other things established through empiric research.

First, an outline of the different types of dictionaries is given, including general dictionaries (monolingual, bilingual), learner’s dictionaries, historical dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Moreover, the typical structure of an entry in a dictionary is explained, because the dictionary entries examined later are mainly checked according to these parts of an entry; it is looked what parts they in- or exclude and how the parts are realized.

After the theoretical part, the empiric research is documented. Five dictionaries (monolingual American and British, bilingual English-German, learner’s dictionary, historical dictionary) and one encyclopedia are compared in the way that three different items (general, encyclopedic, and regional) are looked up and the entries are compared in order to find differences and in this way get a guideline how and when to consult what dictionary.

1. Definition: What Is a Dictionary?

To write about different types of dictionaries first requires a definition of the term ‘dictionary’ itself.

“Dictionaries are alphabetically arranged works that provide information, usually in concise form, about words or topics” (GIBALDI 8).

The use of a dictionary has different aspects: information, operations, users and purposes. The information can be the meaning of a word, its synonyms, pronunciation, or spelling, the etymology, or it can mean information about certain facts or names etc. Under operations, actions like finding meanings, finding words, translating something from one language into another language etc. are summarized. Users can be children, pupils, trainees, teachers, critics, scientists, secretaries, and so on. Their purposes can vary extremely and range from learning more about one’s mothertongue to learning a foreign language, from solving crossword puzzles to decoding texts in a foreign language and of course cover writing reports as well (compare HARTMANN 11).

As there are various kinds of dictionaries which list all sorts of things in sometimes varying ways, the information given can be extremely different in one dictionary compared to another.

First of all, this depends on the size of the dictionary. “To what extend the dictionary can answer the questions of the user about any word of the language depends upon the number of words to be covered in the dictionary”, and of course on the space that each item is granted (TONO 9).

Second, it depends on the type of dictionary used. These different types of dictionaries, or at least some of them, will be looked at closer throughout this report.

2. Different Types of Dictionaries

There are, as mentioned above, various types of dictionaries, for all kinds of languages and purposes, users and words. But as this report is restricted to some English dictionaries, their characteristics and distinctions will be explained. There are some minor distinctive features, e. g. the question whether a dictionary is printed or electronic, but as this simply refers to the form of presentation and not to the content of the dictionary, it is neglectable in this case. Also, this report does not deal with thesauruses, because they are of a very different structure than a dictionary, both in their order of entries (not alphabetically but categorized) and in the structure of the entries themselves, which contain basically synonyms and no definitions, grammar or pronunciations etc.

The first important distinction is whether one deals with a dictionary or an encyclopedia.

2. 1 Dictionaries

Dictionaries can be divided up into bilingual and monolingual dictionaries.

Bilingual dictionaries provide translations from one language into another. “Bilingual dictionaries are designed so that the language learner can use his source language to understand the target language”; e. g. an English-German dictionary contains English headwords and German explanations (BATTENBURG 21).

Monolingual dictionaries, which provide all their information in one language, can be divided up further into monolingual dictionaries for native speakers and learner’s dictionaries.

Dictionaries for native speakers are often much more complicated in their use of the language, and they sometimes do not give information a learner of a language needs because it is information that is obvious for a native speaker. Dictionaries for native speakers usually contain a much greater number of headwords than learner’s dictionaries. “They list more learned and technical words and are more likely to include biographical and geographical entries” and in doing so share aspects of an encyclopedia (GRAMLEY 10). Important English monolingual dictionaries for native speakers are the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, or the Encarta World English Dictionary for America and the Chamber’s Dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, or the Longman Dictionary of the English Language for Great Britain (compare GRAMLEY 10).

English Learner’s dictionaries are specially designed to meet the needs of a non-native speaker of English.

„Didaktische Wörterbücher sind speziell für Benutzer im Erst- und Zweitsprachenerwerb konzipiert. Unter diesen nehmen die sogenannten Lernerwörterbücher eine Sonderstellung ein. Sie richten sich an den fortgeschrittenen Fremdsprachenlerner. Während sie im Umfang den einbändigen Standardwörterbüchern entsprechen, unterscheiden sie sich von diesen dadurch, dass ihre Lemmaanzahl geringer ist, die [...] Angaben zu den einzelnen Lemmata aber umfangreicher und an die Anforderungen eines Nicht-Muttersprachlers angepasst. […] Lernerwörterbücher sind für gewöhnlich einsprachig und für Lerner mit einer beliebigen Muttersprache konzipiert. Sie bieten zwar sehr detaillierte Informationen zu den Lexemen, diese werden dem Fremdsprachenlerner aber in der zu lernenden Sprache dargeboten“ (ENGELBERG/LEMNITZER 26-27).

As pointed out in the quotation, English learner’s dictionaries are monolingual and similar to the English desk dictionaries, but provide fewer headwords with more information, explained less complicated to correspond with the user’s knowledge:

“Dictionary users need to be able to find the information they need quickly, understand it once they have found it, and make use of it in their own speaking or writing. This dictionary arranges and presents information in a clear way, using short cuts in longer entries to help the user pinpoint the meaning they are looking for. The definitions are all written using a defining vocabulary of just under 3000 words, 500 fewer than in the previous edition. […] Our new usage notes, word-family boxes, topic and study pages show links between vocabulary items […]. All these features ensure that less experienced learners receive all the support they need, while the most advanced will always find something new and interesting to challenge them” (OALD vi).

In this preface to the OALD, the publishers define the requirements they demand on their learner’s dictionary.

The most important English learner’s dictionaries are the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary and the Cambridge International Dictionary of English (compare ENGELBERG/LEMNITZER 26).

So far all the types of dictionaries mentioned, whether bilingual, monolingual for native speakers or monolingual for learner’s of a language, have been contemporary ones. That means that they present the lexicon of a language (or parts of it) as the language is spoken now. A special case are historical dictionaries:

„Historische Wörterbücher sind oft die umfangreichsten lexikographischen Produkte einer Sprache [...]. Sie ergänzen das Standardwörterbuch um eine diachronische Perspektive und versuchen detailliert und unter Anführung zahlreicher historischer Belege die Geschichte von Lexemen darzustellen“ (ENGELBERG/LEMNITZER 25).

They provide the history of each lexeme and give quotations which include the lexeme, documenting its use in former times. The most extensive English historical dictionary is the Oxford English Dictionary with its 20 volumes.

Of course various other types of dictionaries exist, e. g. dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms, grammar dictionaries, dictionaries of proverbs and quotations, dictionaries of rhymes, of dialects, of slang expressions – but as those are all very specific and restricted to certain aspects of the language, they will not be dealt with here, because a comparison is not really possible between dictionaries with such different main emphasises.

2. 2 Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias are related to dictionaries in the way that they provide headwords in alphabetical order and give information about them. But the kind of information is different; one can say that the dictionary explaines the words more according to their linguistic nature, and the encyclopedia explains their meaning.

“The entries themselves are not linguistic items, but thematic areas of knowledge. […] A language does not consist solely of dictionary items; it is also full of references to specific things (people, dates, events, ideologies, institutions, social attitudes, etc.). In order to communicate completely with fellow users of English we simply must have encyclopedic knowledge. This is what is understood by cultural literacy ” (GRAMLEY 17).

So if one speaks English, he does not only have to understand the literally meaning of the items, but also their cultural meaning. This kind of meaning is provided in an encyclopedia. That does not only mean that encyclopedias provide different information about their lemmas, but also contain different lemmas than a dictionary, for example most proper names will not occur in a dictionary but of course in an encyclopedia.

Common English encyclopedias are the Academic American Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedic World Dictionary and the New Encyclopaedia Britannica.

3. The Organisation of a Dictionary Entry

No matter how different the types of dictionaries are in their content, they all share more or less the same structure in their entries. There are different features that can occur in a dictionary entry, and not all of them are realized in each entry or in each dictionary. Moreover special dictionaries, like the historical dictionary, contain things none of the others list. But in general a dictionary entry consists of the following parts:



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Different Types Dictionaries Linguistik Make Dictionary



Title: Different Types of Dictionaries