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An Introduction

Howard Jackson

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eBook - ePub


An Introduction

Howard Jackson

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About This Book

This book is an accessible introduction to lexicography– the study of dictionaries.
Dictionaries are used at home and at school, cited in law courts, sermons and parliament, and referred to by crossword addicts and Scrabble players alike. Lexicography provides a detailed overview of the history, types and content of these essential references. Howard Jackson analyzes a wide range of dictionaries, from those for native speakers to thematic dictionaries and those on CD-ROM, to reveal the ways in which dictionaries fulfil their dual function of describing the vocabulary of English and providing a useful and accessible reference resource.
Beginning with an introduction to the terms used in lexicology to describe words and vocabulary, and offering summaries and suggestions for further reading, Lexicography: An Introduction is highly student-friendly. It is ideal for anyone with an interest in the development and use of dictionaries.

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1 Words

1.1 What is a word?

You take a dictionary off the shelf, or access a dictionary on your computer, and open it because you want to look up a ‘word’. Dictionaries are the repositories of words. Words are arranged in dictionaries in alphabetical order, and as you look down the column in a print dictionary or the list in an electronic dictionary, you are reading a list of words. Or are you? Here is the list of the 25 ‘headwords’ between want and wardrobe in COD10 (i.e. Concise Oxford Dictionary, tenth edition: see ‘Dictionaries cited’, p. ix):
want, wanting, wanton, wapentake, wapiti, War., war, waratah, war baby, warble1, warble2, warble fly, warbler, warby, war chest, war crime, war cry, ward, -ward, war dance, warden, warder, ward heeler, ward of court, wardrobe.
A number of items in this list do not quite match our usual concept of what constitutes a word, which is – I suggest – ‘a sequence of letters bounded by spaces’. Indeed, only 15 of the 25 items could be described in this way. Two of the remaining items are less than a full word: the abbreviation War. (for Warwickshire), and the suffix –ward (used to form words like backward, skyward – see Chapter 2). The other eight items all consist of more than one ‘word’: seven of them have just two words, and one has three (ward of court). You will also have noticed that one word (warble) is entered twice. So, just what is a ‘word’?
The word before want in the COD10 list is wannabe. Is that a word, or is it three (want to be)? In our usual concept of a word, it is one, because it is a sequence of letters bounded by spaces. This conception of words comes, of course, from writing, the medium in which we are most conscious of words; and dictionaries are based on the written form of the language. In speech, though, words are composed of sounds and syllables, and they follow one another in the flow of speech without spaces or pauses. We make no more pause in saying war baby than we do with wardrobe, even though the first consists of two words in writing and the second of only one.
There is, clearly, a measure of confusion here that needs some sorting out in a book about words and dictionaries. Let us make the following distinction of terms:
orthographic word a word in writing, a sequence of letters bounded by spaces
phonological word a word in speech, a sequence of sounds (the boundaries of phonological words are determined by rules of syllable structure, stress, and the like)
lexeme a word in the vocabulary of a language; it may occur as a headword in a dictionary.
A lexeme may, therefore, consist of more than one orthographic word, as warble fly, war chest, ward of court. Even though they are listed as headwords, we should exclude abbreviations and affixes (see 1.6 below) from the category of lexeme.

1.2 Same sound, same spelling, different word

We noticed that warble is entered twice in COD10. The compilers of this dictionary are following common practice and recognising two different lexemes with the same spelling (and, as it happens, the same pronunciation). The first warble is the verb that refers to birdsong; the second is a noun denoting ‘a swelling or abscess beneath the skin on the back of cattle … caused by the presence of the larva of a warble fly’. However, the fact that the meanings of the two lexemes are completely unrelated is not the primary criterion for distinguishing them. Dictionaries usually operate with the criterion of etymology (see Chapter 10) for deciding that a single orthographic word represents more than one lexeme. If a single spelling can be shown to have more than one origin, then it constitutes more than one lexeme. In the case of warble, the ‘birdsong’ lexeme has its origin, according to COD10, in the Old Northern French word werble, which came into English during the Middle English period (1066–1500). The ‘abscess’ lexeme also originates in the Middle English period, but it has a different, according to COD10 ‘uncertain’, provenance.
Lexemes that share the same spelling and pronunciation, but have a different etymology, are termed homonyms (a Greek word, meaning ‘same (homo) name (nym)’).
Another orthographic word with a double entry in the dictionary is tear. The first tear lexeme relates to ‘pulling or ripping apart’, the second denotes the drop of salty liquid that comes from the eyes when someone weeps. In this case, however, the same spelling has different pronunciations, i.e. phonological words. Since the dictionary is based on spelling, tear is entered twice. As might be expected, tear (rip) and tear (weep) also have different origins, both from Old English, the first from teran and the second from tBar. Lexemes that share the same spelling, but not the same pronunciation, are called homographs (from Greek, ‘same’ + ‘writing’). There are not very many homographs in English, by comparison with the number of homonyms. Here are some further examples for you to figure out (or look up):
bow, curate, denier, irony, prayer, refuse, reserve, sow, supply, wind.
Much more common in English are the counterparts to homographs: lexemes that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently, e.g. pale/pail. These present no problem to a dictionary, since it is the spelling that takes priority; and each is entered as a headword at the appropriate place in the alphabetical sequence. Lexemes that share the same pronunciation, but not the same spelling, are called homophones (from Greek, ‘same’ + ‘sound’). Here are some further homo-phone pairs in English:
bare/bear, gait/gate, haul/hall, leak/leek, miner/minor, paw/poor/pore/pour, sew/sow, stake/steak, taught/taut
You will notice that most homophones arise because vowel sounds that used to be pronounced differently, as represented by the spelling, have in the course of historical sound changes come to be pronounced the same.

1.3 Lexemes and variants

If you look up sung in a dictionary, you will find a very brief entry along the lines of ‘past participle of sing’, which is a cross-reference to the entry for sing. If you look up the word talked, which is the past participle of talk, you will not find an entry. For both these words, the dictionary gives their description under a single entry: sing for sung, and talk for talked. You do not need a separate treatment of sung or talked, because what is said about sing or talk is equally applicable to them. They are merely ‘variants’ of the entry word; in effect they are the ‘same word’.
The lexeme sing, for example, has the following variants: sing, sings, sang, singing, sung. The lexeme talk has one variant fewer: talk, talks, talked, talking. What we are looking at are the inflections of verbs in English:
base/present tense sing talk
third person singular/present tense sings talks
past tense sang talked
present participle singing talking
past participle sung talked
The verb talk represents the ‘regular’ paradigm, where the past tense and the past participle have the same form, with the –(e)d suffix. The verb sing is one of a number with ‘irregular’ inflections.
There is a sense in which sing, sings, sang, singing and sung are all the ‘same word’; they are different manifestations of the same lexeme, variants chosen according to the grammatical context of the lexeme. For example, if the subject of a sent...

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