Dictionaries as open-access databases: A vision

Like many other media, dictionaries have tended to move into the internet, and many people nowadays use online dictionaries for everyday purposes (e.g. LEO, which has popular online dictionaries for translation between German and a number of widely spoken languages). Scientific, high-profile dictionaries like the OED or the Grimm Deutsches Wörterbuch are also increasingly used in their electronic version.

However, scientific dictionaries of small languages that have little or no practical use outside their speech communities have not often been published electronically so far, even though there are no major technical obstacles to this, and even though this would be highly beneficial for science in a wide variety of ways. Why are online dictionaries of minor languages so important?

– Minor languages are rapidly disappearing on all continents, but at the same time, interest (both scientific interest and wider public interest) in them has been rising over the last two decades.

– Due to language documentation efforts such as DoBeS (Volkswagen Foundation), HRELP (Arcadia/Lisbet Rausing Charitable Fund), and DEL (U.S. National Endowment of the Humanities) as well as similar smaller-scale activities elsewhere, there is now a lot more data on minor languages from around the world. Many dozens of linguists have gathered new data on little-studied languages in modern formats.

– There is no alternative to electronic open-access publication of minor-language dictionaries. Dictionaries of such languages used to be published as print books (e.g. Winter 2003), but such publication is now very difficult or impossible. Major publishers find no global markets for minor-language dictionaries, and smaller, local publishers can publish dictionaries only for local purposes, so that they will hardly be accessible to the scientific community world-wide. (It is true that especially in the wealthier countries, there is sometimes funding for dictionaries for small communities interested in revitalizing their languages, e.g. Liljeblad & Fowler 2011. But this does not work as a general solution, and especially in these countries, people are increasingly interested in online dictionaries.)

– Early-career researchers in language documentation and description thus have no means for prestigious peer-reviewed publication of their research on the lexical resources of their language. Language documentation involves the collection of lexical data as a necessary prerequisite, and other researchers would like to have access to this information, but unlike work on grammatical structures, dictionaries cannot be published at present.

– Lexical data from a wide range of languages have increasingly been used in large-scale comparative work such as the research in the ASJP framework (Brown et al. 2008) or the work by Russell Gray and associates on Austronesian and other language families. There is now a sizable community of researchers (also scholars coming from disciplines other than linguistics) who want to work on lexical comparative data, but are hampered by the lack of relevant comparable data.

– Electronic open-access publication, unlike traditional book publication, makes it easy to publish subsequent editions that supersede earlier editions. If there is a market for a first edition of a print dictionary, there will rarely be a market for a second edition, but there is no significant obstacle to electronic publication of dictionaries of the same language by the same author. This will make dictionary publication attractive to many scholars who are engaged in long-term (sometimes life-long) work on a language: They can now publish a dictionary that they know need not be their final word on the language.

Various individual dictionaries of minor languages have been made available online, for example:

– Araki dictionary: http://alex.francois.free.fr/AF-Araki.htm
– Archi dictionary: http://www.smg.surrey.ac.uk/archi/linguists/
– Bambara dictionary: http://www.bambara.org/lexique/lexicon/main.htm
– Gamilaraay web dictionary: http://www.dnathan.com/language/gamilaraay/dictionary/
– Passamaquoddy/Maliseet dictionary: http://pmportal.org/browse-dictionary
– Yucatec Maya dictionary:

But these use a wide variety of formats and are not readily comparable, and they are published without peer review (thus without giving their authors the usual scientific recognition) and without a clear perspective of permanence. Once their authors lose funding or retire, they could quickly disappear. Moreover, in many cases it is not clear how they should be cited, and how their authors would list them on their CV, so they do not contribute to career-building.

The only larger project that has made available a collection of online dictionaries of minor languages is Swarthmore College’s “Talking Dictionaries“ (coordinated by David Harrison). However, the entries in these dictionaries (currently there are over 20) are not linked to each other or to anything else, and the publication is not peer-reviewed (as far as we know).

Most of the existing online dictionaries of minor languages simply emulate the structure of the previous technology (paper pages), by simply listing the words on HTML pages. This leads to a familiar look, but it means that the usability of the dictionaries is severely restricted (one cannot readily sort the entries by different criteria, one cannot export them in database format, one cannot link to individual data points).

Thus, it seems that electronic dictionaries need to be published in the same way as other scientific contributions: with peer review and peer selection, in a journal that regularly accepts submissions and stores them and makes them accessible indefinitely. Moreover, dictionaries of minor languages need to be published in such a way that the data can be readily used by comparative linguists as well, i.e. in a database format, with data that can be easily exported, as in the World Loanword Database (Haspelmath & Tadmor 2009). So far, nothing of this sort exists, even though it is an urgent need of the community of linguists working on minor languages.

Update July 2015

We have received funding for such a dictionary journal from the DFG, and we hope to start a call for contributions in early 2016. Here is the complete text of the project application.


Brown, Cecil H., Eric W. Holman, Søren Wichmann, and Viveka Velupillai. 2008. Automated classification of the world’s languages: A description of the method and preliminary results. STUF – Language Typology and Universals 61.4: 285-308.

Haspelmath, Martin & Uri Tadmor (eds.). 2009. World Loanword Database. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library. .

Liljeblad, Sven S. 2011. Northern Paiute-Bannock Dictionary. University of Utah Press.

Winter, Werner. 2003. A Bantawa dictionary. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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