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Dispatches from the front line

Today’s post comes from the beautiful Slovenian city of Bled, where I’m attending a conference called ‘eLEX2011’– or ‘Electronic lexicography in the 21st century’.

Regular readers will be aware of how completely the job of producing dictionaries was transformed in the 1980s by the arrival of large language corpora. Those were pioneering times, and the technology struggled to keep up with our appetite for more linguistic data. Now we are awash with it. It has enabled us to produce much better, much more complete descriptions of language. We’d be wary now of making any definitive statement about a word or phrase without first reviewing its use in real communicative situations. A recent post on the use of complete, for example, would have been impossible without a decent corpus and the software to interrogate it. And yet, even 20 years after corpora first came on the scene, the dictionary itself didn’t look radically different. This was a revolution at the ‘producer’ end: dictionary-making would never be the same, but for dictionary users the changes weren’t so obvious.

Now there’s a second revolution – and this time it’s at the ‘consumer’ end. Dictionaries first went digital in the mid-90s, as publishers made their wares available on CD-ROMs as well as in printed books. But the changes this brought were incremental rather than revolutionary, and that technology reached its sell-by date before it had the chance to cause too much disruption to the way dictionaries looked. The really big changes started in the noughties with ‘Web 2.0’, and the pace has been accelerating as digital natives come of age.

The theme of the conference is e-lexicography, but as someone said: what other kind of lexicography is there? This is the second event of its kind. The first, organized by Sylviane Granger and Magali Paquot (who have contributed to our dictionary resources at Macmillan), took place in Belgium in 2009. It was an eye-opener. But the scary thing is that, in the short space of two years, the landscape has already changed significantly. Connectivity rates have advanced so rapidly that, in most parts of the world, high-speed web access is now the norm, or very soon will be. Against this background, the demise of the printed book as a medium for general reference materials – still a topic of debate at ‘eLEX2009’ – now looks inevitable.

Another striking change is the rise and rise of mobile computing. I still have an old-school ‘tower’ computer at home, but this is a dying format. It’s hard to believe that the iPad was only launched in January 2010 (six months after the previous eLEX conference) but this and similar mobile devices are becoming increasingly dominant. Sales of tablet computers are predicted to hit 300 million units per year by 2015, with smartphone sales even higher. Dictionary publishers are already engaging with these new media – the Macmillan Dictionary, like many others, has apps for iPhones and iPads. But the longer-term implications of this game-changing technology are far from clear. We’re right in the middle of a second major revolution for lexicography, and no-one really knows where it is headed. That’s what we’re hoping to find out at this conference, and the Macmillan blog will keep you up to date with developments.

(For more news from eLEX 2011, see here and here.)

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Michael Rundell

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