A Brief History of English Dictionaries

It’s hard to believe, but we didn’t always have the ability to reach for a dictionary to look up a word to see what it meant. Even when dictionaries were around, there were no guarantees that you could find the words, understand the definition, or that the information given was even correct!

In my latest video, I give a short history of dictionaries, talking about some of the most important ones, at least in my opinion. Click the link here to watch it.

Today, there are many dictionaries to choose from. Which one you use depends on, well, you. You may prefer learner dictionaries that give definitions in simple words that are easy to understand. I really like using a learner dictionary to teach ESL. However, more advanced students may require more advanced and specific definitions that include the etymology, or origin and history, of a word. The etymology of a word may not seem that important, but it really is. It gives us insight into where the word came from, how its usage has changed and often can provide a nuance, or shade, to the exact meaning. Synonyms and antonyms are often useful in helping to better understand a word or for vocabulary expansion. Spelling dictionaries provide an easy-to-find list of words broken down into syllables without long definitions and other distracting text, for quick reference. Finally, technical dictionaries cater to specific fields of study and provide definitions and usages based on very specific and detailed uses of technical words. An example of one of these would be a medical dictionary.

Some dictionaries also cater to American English over British English, and this depends on your preference. Dictionaries, like the OED, will include words that are archaic, or out of common use. This might be extremely useful for some readers, but confusing for others.

Technology has, of course, changed the way we use dictionaries. We used to have to first hunt down a big volume and then flip through the pages to find a word. Now, voice activated artificial intelligence technology let’s me find out just about anything I need to know with a simple voice command. “Siri, what does anthropomorphic mean?”

Technology has, however, inadvertently brought us back to the problem of knowing for sure that the information we are receiving is accurate. While we still can trust well-known sources, sometimes we find that we are getting information from a website that lacks credibility. I have googled a word and found myself on a forum or other site that uses popular opinion or comments to provide answers to questions, without any guarantee of the accuracy of. After all, anyone can set up a website or write a blog. This reminds me a bit of OED’s method of gathering definitions.

These are the dictionaries I use in my personal study, as well as English teaching and consulting:

My favorite American English dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/

My favorite British dictionary: http://www.oed.com/

Honorable mention British dictionary: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us

My favorite American learner’s: http://learnersdictionary.com/

My favorite British learner’s: http://www.ldoceonline.com/

My favorite etymology site: http://etymonline.com/

 

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Prescriptive and Descriptive Language Views– Understanding Language

I often tell my students and other language teachers that I hate grammar. “But how can you be an English teacher and hate grammar!” is often the reply. While it is true that I have to teach grammar concepts, and yes, even live by them, I simply don’t care much for them. Grammar (and by extension spelling) rules are confusing and difficult. Just ask any student of English. Most native speakers learn English intuitively, without memorizing the complicated rules, so they speak and write according to what ‘sounds correct’. Second language learners must struggle to understand countless rules and exceptions to rules.

The linguistic terms ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ are used to describe two contrasting views of a language. In my latest video, I explain the difference. You can tell that I am more of a descriptivist, since I don’t like grammar. My approach to teaching English is to teach non-native speakers how to sound like native speakers, not necessarily follow all of the rules. Other language professionals, such as grammarians, are more prescriptionist in their views. They prefer to remind everyone how a language, like English, should be used. In reality, like most things, a balance is needed. A language must be looked from both sides. Check out my video and let me know what you think!

(click here for the YouTube video link)

Did you know? According to linguists that study this subject, most languages in the world are only spoken, not written. Out of the over 7,000 identified languages, it is estimated that 2/3 are spoken, but not written. While some of these languages may actually have a writing system or alphabet, it may not be used by the majority of the native speakers, due to tradition or illiteracy.

Why Doesn’t English Use Gender?

Many languages assign a gender to nouns. For example in Spanish, the house translates to la casa. The article la indicates that the noun, casa, is female. The gender usually has nothing to do with the meaning of the word. It often just relates to the morphology or phonology of the word. Since many Indo-European languages follow the same pattern, such as French, Latin, Russian, German and Italian, it seems reasonable to think that English would have gender assigned to nouns as well, but of course it does not.

While we may think of gender related pronouns, he, she, his or her, these are actually rarely used with inanimate nouns. The only really common examples I can think of are when referring to a ship or a nation. For example,  She has a beautiful set of sails. Gender assignment may occasionally be used poetically in literature, as well, but it is not found in the general use of English.  My YouTube video explains why. It is actually a very logical reason that has a lot to do with Vikings.

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What is the Difference Between a Linguist, Grammarian and Lexicographer?

Some students of language have wondered about the difference in the language professionals, namely a linguistic, grammarian and lexicographer. I would like to take a moment and explain the difference in the video blog below. It is really quite simple, although it must be noted that many language professionals may fall into more than one category.

Video Link

Personally, I am not a grammarian at all. I really hate grammar with all its complicated rules. Like most native speakers, I don’t rely on grammar rules, just experience of what ‘sounds right’. I often have to look up grammar information to answer student questions or provide explanations of why a grammar point is what it is. It’s clear that I’m not a grammarian. While I enjoy dictionaries and English word etymologies, I don’t think of myself as so much of a lexicographer. What I find most interesting is the study of linguistics, not just English but language in general. I love learning about language, how the brain processes it and how people learn and use it. I use this information to help my students learn in a better way. Look for information about all the disciplines of language study on my blog and in my videos.

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How French Influenced English: A Short History

In this video blog post, I explain how and why French influenced the English language. To understand this, we take a trip back in time to the days of the Vikings and William I. Check out my video, click on the image below:

Battle of Hastings Normans

or this link: https://youtu.be/0BWpp0mcSF0

Have you ever noticed that certain words in English, while they may mean the same thing, sound fancier or more formal? Why is an animal a “cow” or “bull” in the farmyard, but “beef” cooked and on the table? Think about the following word synonym pairs:

Bring/Carry

Hearty/Cordial

Wonder/Ponder

Weird/Strange

Wild/Savage

Kingship/Monarchy

Can you tell that the first word is Anglo-Saxon (English) based, while the second is French based? Now you know why fancier or more formal sounding words have French roots, and more common, plain or everyday words are Anglo-Saxon based. It’s all about the rich history of the English language. (Note: Rolo should be Rollo. Sorry for the error in editing!)

 

Aaron’s Three Interesting Facts about English

Editors Note: Sorry for the delay in publishing new information. Here at Aaron’s English we’ve been working on updating our video format to make it more fun and interesting. After all, that’s what we are all about, real-world fun and interesting English learning. In addition, Aaron is expanding his own skills with college courses on the subject of linguistics . 

I thought I would share with you my favorite three things about the English language. While it may be easy to guess that I love talking about English, I really do believe there is so much value in learning English and expanding your fluency in it. So here are my favorite fun facts about English (Don’t forget to watch the YouTube video link too):

1. Although English is categorized as a Germanic language, the language that we tend to borrow the least from is German. We borrow much more from other languages. Some have the mistaken idea that German is somehow the parent language or root of English. However, English and German both developed and evolved independently from one another from one common language.

2. English is probably the most important language of practical use to learn. I know many people will be quick to point out that Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language. They’d be correct in saying that but that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to go out and start learning Chinese (unless you’re planning on moving to a Chinese speaking country). The simple fact of the matter is that English is a global language. Most scientific papers are published in English, almost half of the business deals done in Europe are done in English, it’s the official language of air traffic controllers, and there are currently over a billion people currently learning English. It’s the official language of 4 countries, 64 sovereign states, and 27 non-sovereign entities. (See the illustration below) That’s certainly some incentive to learn English! Which by the way, there are more English-language-learners than there are actual native English speakers.

Countries in which English is the first language of the majority of the population. (shown in dark blue); other countries present possess substantial English knowledge dating back to the British Empire (shown in light blue) Source: Wikipedia “English Speaking World”

3.  English is one of the only languages that has a thesaurus. Japanese makes use of one as well, but this is a rare exception. The reason English needs a thesaurus is that English borrows so much from other languages that it necessitates a thesaurus. English borrows from Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Latin, French, Greek, etc. so we’ve adopted and adapted these to English. Interestingly, when using a thesaurus you’ll, more often than not, find words with different shades of meaning. Some are more technical, archaic, slangy, scholarly, or literary. It’s important that you use the word most commonly used to the audience you’re writing for or talking to.

Video link:   YouTube Aaron’s English Page