Despite what you might expect: linguists hate dictionaries. They’re the bane of our existence, really–these things that Linguistics 101 students appeal to in defense of the crap explanations of how language works that they learnt in some grade school “English” class. Here’s a list of problems with dictionary definitions alone from a draft of a paper of mine:
Dictionaries have more problems than just their definitions. See here for a post on some of them. It includes links to many other pieces on the topic, including an interview with the amazing Deborah Cameron.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t own and use them, though–a lot of them. In fact, I have lots of different kinds of dictionaries. One of the basic distinctions between kinds of dictionaries that you’re likely to be interested in if you’re reading a blog like this one is that between monolingual and bilingual dictionaries.
A monolingual dictionary gives the meanings of words in some language by providing definitions in that language itself. As Wikipedia puts it: The word dictionary (unqualified) is usually understood to refer to a general purpose monolingual dictionary.
At some point in your study of a language, you need a monolingual dictionary of that language. English-French/French-English dictionaries will get you a long way, and often they suffice, but sometimes you really do need a monolingual dictionary of whatever language it is that you’re interested in. (Case in point: recently I was trying to figure out the distinctions between some words referring to light—chatoyer, scintiller, briller, stuff like that. Finding the English translations didn’t really help, because some of those can be translated by the same words in English, and I couldn’t swear that I can completely differentiate between the words in English, either. As a point of reference: English is my native language, and I scored in the top 1 percentile on the vocabulary portion of the GRE. I had to go to a monolingual French dictionary to find out that chatoyer necessarily involves reflection, scintiller necessarily involves intermittence, etc. With those aspects of the definitions in hand, I could go look at actual examples of usage, and see what kinds of things can be the subjects of those verbs–for example, scintiller is often used with stars or to describe the night sky.)
I’m a huge technoskeptic. Not despite the fact that I work in technology, but because I work in technology, I never expect anything to work. The smartphone, though–that’s something that was immediately obviously a good idea. Indeed, my phone is the thing that makes my life of flying from continent to continent possible. For example, when I went to France for the first time, I started packing my suitcase and immediately ran into a problem: 50% of my luggage was going to be taken up by books. Smartphone to the rescue: with a Kindle app, I can buy new things to read as I need them. Other apps let me download maps, manage my packing lists, write emails, etc. One of them has also solved my problem of needing to have a monolingual French dictionary once in a while. I tried six of them; the best was Dictionnaire français, by Farlex. The review that I wrote for it sums up its plusses:
I’ll give you some specifics now, focussing especially on aspects of the search functionality. As I suggested in the review, one of the real strengths of this dictionary is the flexibility of its search options. You can do a “simple” search (recherche simple): just type in the word that you’re looking for.
Often, though, you want to be able to look for words that fit some pattern. For example, you might want all words that start with some string of characters, or all words that end with some string of characters. The Farlex dictionary lets you do that with the Commence par (“starts with”) and Finit par (“ends with”) searches.
You might also want to be able to search for words with some particular pattern, irrespective of where that pattern is in the word. For example, I have a lot of trouble remembering how to pronounce ouille, so I wanted to find a bunch of examples of it. Farlex lets you do this with what it calls métacaractères. (Computational linguists call these wildcards.) To find words with any number of characters, followed by ouille, followed by any number of characters, I did this search, and got these results:
(In Farlex’s métacaractère “language,” the question mark (?) means “any single character,” and an asterisk (*) means “any number of characters.” To linguists and computer scientists, this kind of “language” is called a regular language, and these kinds of expressions are called regular expressions. In a corpus linguistics class, I’ll typically spend about a week teaching them, as they are super-useful in language technology.)
One feature of the Farlex app that I really appreciate is that it stores your recent searches. It’s not uncommon for me to look up a word, forget what it meant, and then need to look it up again. The fact that recent searches are saved lets me go back to those words without having to type them again. Also, if I want to review recent vocabulary items that I’ve learnt, I can just go back to this list.
Another nice feature of the app is that it aggregates definitions from multiple sources. These range from a very recent Larousse to dictionaries going back to the 1700s. In fact, lying about my house I have dictionaries of English from a variety of time periods, ranging from a very recent American Heritage (good for usage statistics) to a mid-20th-century Webster’s (very useful when reading American literature from the first half of the 20th century) to an Oxford English Dictionary that I mostly use for Shakespeare (it has all known definitions of a word, ever, going back to the earliest ones observed). I like to read Molière in French, so sometimes the definitions from the old Littré are exactly what I need. Here are some of the multiple definitions of appétence, a word that I ran into this morning.
So: if you’re looking for a monolingual French dictionary that can live comfortably on your phone, this is probably your baby. Let’s face it–if you’ve lived in Paris for any amount of time and you don’t have a hell of a lot more money than I do, you’re used to living in tiny spaces….
Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have any conflicts of interest here. Farlex doesn’t pay me to write stuff like this–in fact, after I took the screen shots for this post, I paid them for the ad-free version of the app. This is the case with everything that I review on this blog.