What is (not) a dictionary, and/or what is a dictionary not? The Woordelys of the Afrikaanse woordelys en spelreëls as a case study

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The Afrikaanse woordelys en spelreëls (AWS) (Afrikaans word list and spelling rules) is the authoritative reference work on orthography for Standard Afrikaans. The latest edition (2017) consists of two major parts and several front and back matter texts. The first major part is a section of 244 pages called the Spelreëls, which describes the standard orthography in a series of spelling rules. The second major part, covering 318 pages, is called the Woordelys, in which words (and sometimes short phrases) of the Standard variety are listed because they may pose spelling difficulty, or because they are now specifically recognised as lexical elements of the Standard variety as opposed to (previously) dialectal or foreign items. This article is the first in a trilogy that reports on an intensive metalexicographic study of the Woordelys. In this contribution the status of the Woordelys as a dictionary or not is investigated.

Diverging opinions on whether the Woordelys is a dictionary are reflected in the AWS, and also in the most recent scientific literature about the AWS. Until the tenth edition (2009) front matter texts to the AWS and the Woordelys emphasised that the Woordelys should not be regarded as a dictionary. However, in the orientation to the Woordelys in the latest, eleventh edition of 2017, it is asserted that the Woordelys is not a traditional dictionary, terminology list or grammar, which would imply that the Woordelys is in fact some type of dictionary. In recent literature, opinions also vary, ranging from regarding the entire AWS (ostensibly including the “Spelreëls”) as a type of dictionary, to regarding the Woordelys as a special or orthographic dictionary with limited lexicographical information, through to regarding the whole AWS as neither a dictionary nor a grammar or textbook. To resolve this question, the metalexicographic literature is consulted for clarity on terms and concepts like dictionary and lexicography. However, less agreement on the denotations of these terms exists among researchers than one would expect. In addition, some scholars have recently warned that lexicography as a discipline is under threat in the rapidly evolving Fourth Industrial Revolution, and that innovation is urgently needed.

The primary research question, namely whether the Woordelys is a dictionary, is therefore approached afresh and from a relatively new and still evolving metalexicographic angle, namely the theory of lexicographic communication (TLC). The basic tenets of the TLC are: (a) In essence, lexicography is an exercise in human communication; and (b) This communication is indirect and mediated by text. These tenets require definitions of lexicography and text.

The general definition of lexicography in the literature (including dictionaries) is that lexicography is the discipline that deals with the study, planning and compilation of dictionaries. From a TLC perspective it is argued that this conception of lexicography limits the entire discipline to a single type of artefact as product, while lexicographical communication can in fact occur via a host of media, of which dictionaries represent only one type. A comprehensive definition of lexicography should rather capture the core communicative activity associated with the discipline. Considering the etymology and actual use of the terms lexicography and especially lexicographic(al) (as in “lexicographic guidance, data”, etc.) in the scientific literature, as well as the origins of the discipline, lexicography is defined as the study, planning and compilation of lexical commentaryLexical commentary, then, is defined as consisting of one or more lexicographic messages that state a particular sign (e.g. a lexical item) and identifies it as an element of a particular set of signs (or lexicon) belonging to a particular sign system (e.g., Afrikaans), and/or convey further information pertaining to that sign (like formal, paradigmatic, syntagmatic and pragmatic properties). Lexical commentary can include lexicological commentary, but also non-linguistic and even non-verbal commentary. A lexicographic message m is defined as the product of at least one lexicographic proposition p and a communicative (speech) act Ψ, which is associated with one expression e by means of encoding/decoding or implication/inference, so that e  Ψ(p), Ψ(p) = m, therefore e  mLexicographic propositions convey the propositional contents of lexical commentary. An expression e is the realisation of a sign or series of signs to signal at least one message m, so that  m.

According to the second tenet of the TLC, lexicographical communication is mediated by text. Therefore the compilation of lexical commentary necessarily results in the production of text. From the discipline of text linguistics a working definition of text is adapted to apply to a broader range of communication modes than only linguistic sign systems, e.g. visual communication by means of diagrams or pictures. As such, a text is defined as a series of expressions experienced, presented and accepted as a communicative unit by the participants involved, where communicative unit refers to the product of the formal, syntagmatic, semantic and pragmatic relations between signs, meaning and their users respectively. Consequently, a lexicographic text can be defined as any text with the primary objective to communicate lexical commentary. By applying the principle that text types are identified according to their dominant communicative functions, the essence of a lexicographic text T can be expressed by a formula, namely T = {EPQ}, where E represents a set of lexicographic propositions that (i) establishes that a certain form x exists in the discourse domain, (ii) makes a statement about x’s referential value (generally, that it denotes a lexicon element y), and (iii) makes a statement about y’s membership of a given lexicon K (generally, y ∊ K); P represents a further series of lexicographic propositions about y; and Q represents a series of non-lexicographic propositions, usually to establish text cohesion. The propositions belonging to E and P should dominate the propositional contents of a lexicographic text. This is indicated by underlining E and P in the formula. Elements of Q are optional.

The nature of the series of expressions constituting a lexicographic text places that text between two poles on a coding spectrum, with pure prosaic lexicographic text at the one pole, and pure lexicogramme at the opposite pole. A pure prosaic lexicographic text is a lexicographic text in which the lexical commentary is expressed by means of prose in the natural language of the target user. Such texts typically consist of full sentences and paragraphs in the relevant language. On the other hand, a pure lexicogramme is a lexicographic text in which the lexical commentary is expressed via a sign system that is completely different from that of the target user’s natural language. Lexicographic texts on the spectrum between the poles can be characterised as strong(er) or weak(er) prosaic lexicographic texts or lexicogrammes respectively. Compare the following two texts, which are communicatively equivalent in their respective contexts:

text1 koop, ge-
text2  This paragraph deals with the existing orthographic form “koop”. This form denotes the Afrikaans verb [ko:p]. This word is an element of the lexicon of Standard Afrikaans, and in this variety the correct orthographic form is “koop”. As such, this word inflects to the past participle [xə'ko:p], with “gekoop” as its correct orthographic form.


Text1 is an article from the Woordelys. It consists of two expressions, namely \koop,\ and \ge-\. These two expressions encode the same set of propositions as text2 does. Both texts meet the standard of T = {EPQ}, and are therefore identified as lexicographic texts. The expressions in text2 correspond to a high degree with prose in English, and therefore text2 can be regarded as a strong prosaic lexicographic text. On the other hand, text1 communicates the same propositional content in a significantly different sign system, by which the expression \koop,\ encodes the propositional equivalent of the first three sentences in text2, and \ge-\ encodes the propositional equivalent of the last sentence. Therefore text1 can be characterised as a strong lexicogramme.

Having clarified the terms lexicography and lexicographic text in the TLC, the term dictionary requires definition to ultimately answer the primary research question. Assuming that a dictionary is a type of reference work, dictionary is defined as a lexicographic reference work, with lexicographic denoting “consisting primarily of lexicographic texts”.

Finally, it is established that the Woordelys is a reference work displaying an outer and inner access structure. Furthermore, the texts contained in the Woordelys are lexicographic texts and, more specifically, relatively strong lexicogrammes (cf. text1 above). Therefore, the Woordelys is a dictionary, and, more specifically, a monolingual, synchronic, standard, orthographic dictionary. The AWS is characterised as a monolingual, synchronic, standard, orthographic reference source.

By means of the Woordelys as a case study the terms lexicographydictionary and lexicographic text are defined within the framework of the TLC. In the second contribution in this series of articles the Woordelys, as a type of dictionary, will be described in terms of the constitutive components of textuality as defined in text linguistics, i.e. cohesion, intentionality, acceptability, informativity, contextuality, intertextuality and coherence. In the third contribution the Woordelys will be evaluated as a dictionary in terms of the regulative text-linguistic principles of efficiency, effectiveness and appropriateness.

Keywords: dictionary; lexical commentary; lexicogramme; lexicographic communication; lexicographic text; lexicography; orthographic dictionary; text linguistics; text; texteme; textuality; word list


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Wat is (nie) ’n woordeboek (nie)? Die Woordelys van die Afrikaanse woordelys en spelreëls as gevallestudie

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