Word Matters Podcast

What exactly is a 'learner's dictionary'?

Word Matters, Episode 38

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Wait, shouldn't every dictionary be a learner's dictionary? Technically, sure. But today we're discussing a specific resource: Merriam-Webster's Advanced Learner's English Dictionary, which was designed and written directly for people coming to English from another language. Here's the story of that book and how it changed how our other definitions were written.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, the Learner's Dictionary. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Upon hearing the term learner's dictionary, one might be inclined to wonder: wouldn't every dictionary be a learner's dictionary? Surely, no one knows all the words. And while there's truth to that, today we're talking about a specialized lexicon. Merriam-Webster's Advanced Learner's English Dictionary is written specifically for people coming to English from another language. Here's Peter Sokolowski with the story of how this book and its free-on-the-internet sister version came to be.

Peter Sokolowski: We have talked before and mentioned that there's no such thing as the dictionary, because there are so many different dictionaries. But not only so many different dictionary publishers, but also different kinds of dictionaries for different functions. And I think that's something that a lot of people don't ever think about, and I understand why. We'd like today to talk about a very special dictionary that we worked on at Merriam-Webster, which is known in English as a learner's dictionary, a dictionary written for people who did not learn English by speaking it at home, often called native speakers of English. This kind of dictionary is very different from the traditional dictionary, from the collegiate, or college-level, or desk dictionary, or unabridged dictionary. They all have different roles and different functions, but they work the same way. The learner's dictionary actually works in a very different way, it seems to me, and it's written completely differently. And we know this because Neil and Emily and I spent a lot of years writing one.

Emily Brewster: Our Merriam-Webster's Advanced Learner's English Dictionary, the advanced there signals that this is not a bilingual dictionary, it's a monolingual dictionary. It is written for advanced learners of English, so non-native speakers who have gotten to the point where they can use a monolingual dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: We have to make a reference to bilingual dictionaries, because for many learners of English, they start with a bilingual dictionary. And often what happens for students is that they begin language learning with something that looks more like math, horse equals cheval. And for concrete nouns, it really works. And so you feel like you're making progress and you start going down the path, and then you realize quite quickly that in fact, language is not math, that you have to learn language in a more organic way by describing things around you. And that's where the limitations of a bilingual dictionary show themselves. And also, as soon as you can read a little bit, if you can read the definitions of a word that you're looking up, then you're surrounding yourself in this English context, what the French call the bath of language, [French 00:02:55], which is what we call immersion. And that's really an important step in learning a language, which is reading the definitions or reading anything in that language. And so a shorthand I give for people who ask what's the difference is three things. The definitions are written in what I would call plain language. There are many, many example sentences to show you the context, the register of every word, and also the syntax. In other words, not just a few words strung together, but usually a complete sentence. And finally, the idioms, which are often metaphorical and difficult to understand are enumerated much more completely in this kind of dictionary.

Emily Brewster: So in a learner's dictionary, you would never see a definition for an adjective that is, say, "of or relating to" the noun that is related to this word, right? A learner's dictionary would never do that. And actually, our merriam-webster.com dictionary, we have moved very far away from that also. But a learner's dictionary doesn't do that because you assume that the learner does not have this other knowledge.

Peter Sokolowski: There's so many things to talk about. Just for example, the order of senses.

Emily Brewster: We had an episode where we talked about the order of definitions in our entries and about how in recent years, we have moved away from the strictly historical order. It used to be that when you looked at any Merriam-Webster dictionary, at the entry, you would see a list of definitions, the meanings of a particular word, and they would be listed in the order that they developed in, which would sometimes mean that you would have this old obscure meaning that the word used to have no longer has. And for the Learner's Dictionary, that was the first dictionary that we made that was no longer tied to historical order. And our instructions to the definers are now the instructions that we have going forward in the merriam-webster.com dictionary, and also in the Unabridged Dictionary when we were working on that project, is that we order the senses in whatever way makes sense. It's just a very vague set of instructions, but it's actually really useful because sometimes, the historical order is important because it orients the meaning of the word. So it can be crucial in understanding a word to work from its first concrete meaning to then its metaphorical meanings. Sometimes, you want to go with the most common meaning, sometimes can jump around in which meaning makes sense or not.

Ammon Shea: A quick question, do you guys find with the Learner's Dictionary, or have you found, that people sometimes try to interpret the order in a way that is not intended? I see this routinely with the Collegiate and Unabridged Dictionary is that people think of the first meaning as the most important or the most correct meaning. Do they still do that with Learner's as well?

Neil Serven: They do this with every dictionary I think we publish. It's just the default assumption about how dictionaries' entries are ordered. That was never always the case where the first entry is the most likely to be encountered entry, I guess we'll call it. What we learned as we were defining is that we had to slow down a lot of our assumptions and re-examine what we thought people might already know about a word and of what about how one meaning leaps to another. We not only took an effort to simplify the language of our definitions, we also took this effort to make sure we were not leaping ahead in thought from one to another, so that any person who was learning the language, reading the definition was not going to have to spend a lot of time looking up other words in the definition as they were trying to understand what one definition meant. It can lead to a lot of frustration and causes the user to do more work than needs to be done.

Peter Sokolowski: What I always say to English Language teachers, ESL teachers, is that this dictionary was written for your students to be able to read when you're not next to them, when you're not in the classroom. And that is such a huge step. It means we do have to rethink everything and write with a different intention, but also with different labels and tools. In fact, we used a limited vocabulary.

Ammon Shea: Did you find that switching from the Collegiate defining style to this, was it more difficult or setting up obstructions, if you will, was it helpful?

Emily Brewster: Going between the Learner's Dictionary and the Collegiate Dictionary was a very interesting process because the Learner's Dictionary was of course still space constraint. This is a print dictionary and it is a big print dictionary. But because a lot of the technical vocabulary that was covered in the Collegiate Dictionary is not appropriate for a learner's dictionary, it's just not necessary to know all these botanical terms. For example, a learner doesn't have to know that a lanuginous leaf is fuzzy, right? That's not a prime word for a learner. So we could fill instead the space in this actually very big dictionary with all kinds of information that a learner does need to know that a native speaker does not need to know. The grammatical information given in a standard desk dictionary or in the merriam-webster.com dictionary is the part of speech noun, verb, preposition, conjunction, blah, blah, blah. And we'll tell you if a verb is transitive or intransitive. But in a learner's dictionary, the amount of grammatical information that is given is far more extensive. So for example, we have talked in the discussion about fewer and less, we were talking about countable versus non-countable. This is the idea of whether a noun is countable, like pens or mugs, versus non-countable, like sand or time, is something that is understood by instinct to a native speaker. And a native speaker can certainly think, "Oh right, that is countable, interesting," and recognize this distinction. But for a learner of English, they don't have that instinctual knowledge of a word's countability. And so it's very helpful for that to be included explicitly at an entry.

Neil Serven: My first two projects were also the Collegiate and then the Learner's. Maybe I had some defining habits I had to break that I had learned by doing the Collegiate and then re-examining myself when I had to work on the Learner's Dictionary. And maybe that's what I was getting in things that you call it instinctual, things that we would want to spell out that we would not normally have spelled out in a collegiate dictionary. And even when it comes to things like idioms and turns of phrase that would not have explicit coverage in the Collegiate Dictionary. And you look at the entry like follow, there's about 12 different phrases here. As follows, follow around, follow in someone's footsteps, follow suit. You don't think of all these idioms or just turns of phrase that one single word could appear in until you're working on a project like this, then you try to map them all out. It's a bit exhausting, but also very enlightening.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. We've been talking about the language. Let me just give an example of a definition. Let's look up the word, "Horse," in our collegiate dictionary or at merriam-webster.com. This is a solid scientific dictionary definition, but it's written clearly for a native speaker. Horse: "a large solid-hoofed herbivorous ungulate mammal, family Equidae, domesticated since prehistoric times and used as a beast of burden, a draft animal, or for riding." Now, can you imagine if you're in the first year of an English class and you counter "a large solid-hoofed herbivorous ungulate mammal." That's a good scientific definition, but it's not-

Neil Serven: It's all the herbivorous ungulates. You just put them all together. You refer to the other herbivorous ungulates that you know, and then you move on.

Peter Sokolowski: And then reduce them to the solid-hoofed ones, of course. But the fact is if we look it up at learnersdictionary.com, which is the website that's associated with this dictionary, the horse is defined this way: "a large animal that is used for riding and for carrying and pulling things." So you see in that original definition, first of all, it's older and I would criticize it. "Beast of burden" and "draft animal" are almost idiomatic themselves. It's not transparent what a beast of burden is. And we don't make those assumptions, which is exactly what Neil was just saying. But also, we had to make another assumption which is we decided for the Learner's Dictionary that the word animal could be used for a living thing with four legs, which was not permitted in the Collegiate because it's not scientifically specific enough. So we had to use herbivorous mammal, for example.

Ammon Shea: In 1828, he described it as "a quadruped of the genus Equus."

Peter Sokolowski: That's Webster?

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: That's Webster. But my point is, if we look at the language of the definitions, we start to see the work that went into this particular dictionary. One example I use is the word vitriol, which most of us think of in terms of rhetoric words that are used in an angry context. But vitriol, of course, in that sense is actually a metaphor. The original meaning of vitriol was "a liquid that burns." So the first definition reads in our Collegiate Dictionary, "a sulfate of any various metals as copper, iron, or zinc, especially a glassy hydrate of such a sulfate." Now, let me tell you, I don't know what that means particularly. It's so technical. In other words, this is a word that evolved from liquid that burns to mean words that burn. And so if you look this word up in our Learner's Dictionary, it has a different definition. First of all, they dispense completely with that scientific definition which is less common. And the simple definition is "harsh and angry words," which in many ways is a better definition. And that word, harsh, retains the idea of "burn." This is a good example of the care that goes into the writing of this kind of a dictionary.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Putting ourselves in that mindset of writing for non-native speakers and getting the language to be the simplest communication of a word's meaning affected the way we have defined since, dramatically I would say. I always think of defining a book dictionary, a print dictionary, like the Collegiate Dictionary, is this balance between accuracy and concision. It has to be as concise as it can be and as accurate as it can be. And there's always that balancing act between conciseness and precision accuracy. But in a learner's dictionary, we had a little bit more space and we focused more not just on accuracy, but that simplicity was brought in there. So instead of it just being concise and accurate, it had to be concise, accurate, and simple. And that commitment to simpler defining has become part of our defining going forward. I think it really didn't used to be so much. As long as you were concise and accurate, okay, well, good luck to the reader. Everything is there available for you. You might have to go to three other definitions to understand what this means, but we are being concise and accurate. And now, we are aimed to be concise, accurate and simple.

Peter Sokolowski: Or clear. I might use the word clarity rather than simplicity, because clarity meaning that you don't have to go to another entry to decode the one that you're at. That's a big part of the mission of this kind of dictionary. Another part, as we mentioned before, are idioms. You might assume that there are many idioms in an English language monolingual dictionary. The fact is there are very few in most of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the big Unabridged Dictionary for example, has very few. And I have to assume there was a rule that it was assumed that to save space that the metaphorical use of a concrete noun was assumed to have been acquired culturally, that you learn it growing up and therefore it didn't belong in the dictionary. Now, I would argue that when you say a piece of cake versus a slice of cake, and you say a piece of cake and you don't mean dessert, that really needs to be explained. That really needs to be defined. When an elephant in the room does not refer to a pachyderm, we really need to define it. And so I'm really proud of the coverage of idiom. I believe it's the most comprehensive coverage of American English idioms. One of the things I do in workshops with English Language teachers, whether they're ESL teachers in the United States or abroad, is I'll sometimes say, "Hey, let's think of an idiom that uses the word horse." And even in a room of 300 people, we'll come up with a handful, but we won't come up with a full dozen or fifteen that we list in our dictionary. And this has led me to a little revelation, which is that idioms are acquired by native speakers, by people who grow up speaking a language semantically. "I'm hungry, I could eat a horse." At no point do I think of the animal. But if you are a learner of English, you have to acquire idioms lexically. You have to think to yourself, "What is that thing about a horse when you're hungry that you want to eat, but not a horse?" And then you have to do that mechanical thought process until you don't, until you are fluent in that idiom. A horse of a different color, beat a dead horse, change horses midstream, I could eat a horse, from the horse's mouth, hold your horses, to look a gift horse in the mouth. What's compelling about this is that it's a catalog of idioms and that it's arranged alphabetically according to the major lexical component. And that is actually new, or at least it's new to Merriam-Webster. There were some other learner's dictionaries and mostly British ones before, but I find this to be one of the most exciting parts of this dictionary is to explain these metaphors, these little stories that are embedded in idioms of English.

Neil Serven: It's particularly impressive to think of this when you think of what an English learner brings to the dictionary when they come to consult it. An English learner is going to have in their own mind what a horse is.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Neil Serven: And so when we define the word horse, a large animal that is used for riding and carrying and pulling things, we're not introducing the idea of a horse to this person. This person knows it's that thing that I've been calling something else for however long. It's like oh, we now are unified in this idea only with a different word. But then the idioms, of course, they have, as you mentioned, their own identity and they probably do not have any kind of parallel in a native language.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Neil Serven: So then we're taking this idea of a horse that we already know about and then applying it in all these different metaphors, a horse of a different color or whatever, and they probably have a way to express that idiom in their own native language that they're coming with, but it might not even refer to horses at all. It might refer to some other animal-

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Neil Serven: It might refer to some just other reference that when you want to talk about things that are unalike in a different way. And when we say a horse of a different color, it's a subject that's an irrelevant subject entirely. Other languages have ways to express that idea that might even be an idiom in their own way, but they don't invoke the mammal that they already know about that is used to carry a cart around and be ridden.

Peter Sokolowski: And to your point, there's much more granular usage guidance in this dictionary. So if you look up horse and stick with the definitions, at horses, informal, it's labeled, "Informal." And in American English, it's labeled, "U.S., horses means horsepower, a car with 275 horses." So this is a common use that has nothing to do with the animal obviously, or at least at several removes from the animal. And then the next sense says, "American English, informal, an athlete who is strong and who helps a team to win. A team with the horses to win the pennant." And then that's explained in parentheses, "A team with the good players needed to win the pennant." So you see this sort of didactic reflex in the language of the definitions. And that is very, very different in this kind of dictionary. This one thing we didn't mention, it's the only monolingual dictionary that Merriam-Webster publishes in which the phonetic transcriptions are done in the International Phonetic Alphabet, the IPA. And that's a big deal.

Emily Brewster: Americans don't know it, but-

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Emily Brewster: Everybody else in the world does. International Phonetic Alphabet is a set of symbols that represents every sound.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Emily Brewster: Right? So every sound in every language. So IPA includes a great number of sounds that no word in English uses.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: And the symbols are not all going to be recognizable to the native speaker of English. And then there are also diagraphs. So the International Phonetic Alphabet has one symbol for each sound. There's a sound to symbol correspondence of one.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: So diagraphs like T-H in English, there's a single symbol. So IPA is very efficient and it's really fun to learn.

Peter Sokolowski: And I think that symbol is a theta, the zero with a cross hairs in it and that's the sound of the T-H, and if it's underlined, then it's voiced. I think it's fascinating to think of the fact that phonetic transcriptions in most major dictionaries are what I call orthographic. In other words, they are able to be read by someone who already knows what they sound like.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that I wanted to come back to was Emily's description of the learner's dictionary as needing the three qualities of being concise, accurate and simple, because I think within our own company's history, we have some great examples of hitting maybe two of those.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ammon Shea: And missing on the third.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: And one of the great ones was in Noah Webster's first dictionary in 1806, titled A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, he defined both cat and dog in the exact same manner. And he defined each as "a domestic animal." That is concise, we will give him that. And in some sense, it is simple.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: But it's missing something on accuracy. It's not missing quite as much on accuracy as his revision in 1828. When he got around to cat, he made it much longer, four senses and a name applied to "certain species of carnivorous quadrupeds of the genus Felis." But then he goes on and says, "The domestic cat needs no description. It's a deceitful animal. When enraged, extremely spiteful." It's a little judgmental. I like to think that we got rid of those and embraced those three qualities that Emily so eloquently laid out for the Learner's Dictionary. It really brought us to a much better place than we started with Noah.

Peter Sokolowski: When we released this book, a lot of people, including our associate publisher, the vice-president at Merriam-Webster, and he said, "I like this as a standard dictionary for me. I like it. It's easy to read." And other adults, teachers of English who use it in class, they say, "I just like this because it's straightforward and it's accessible." It's not limited just to this didactic ESL usage. It's a good general use dictionary with a 100,000 words defined. It's a huge dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at anypm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general and dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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