The future of the dictionary

François Vallotton and Charles Andrès . © SNSF

The Historical Dictionary of Switzerland has reached the last letter of its alphabet. Is it also the end for all such dictionaries? Is Wikipedia replacing encyclopaedias written by experts? Not at all, says François Vallotton, a member of the Historical Dictionary’s Foundation Board. And he’s not alone – the longstanding Wikipedian Charles Andrès is of the same opinion.

François Vallotton

​It was mere chance of the calendar that caused the coincidence of two events of major importance in the field of dictionaries. First there was the entry into receivership of the Encyclopædia Universalis. Then there was the launch of the 13th and final volume of the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, marking the end of a very long editorial project (in fact, more than a quarter of a century), which started on paper and then began adding an electronic version in 1998.

We could conclude from this that the encyclopaedia has been rendered obsolete by the new options for research offered by the Internet. There is, however, still space in the future for higher added-value digital projects in the field of science. Specifically, these will offer alternatives - or rather supplements - to crowd-sourced encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia. I will highlight the several prerequisites that may be needed to guarantee such continuity, using the historical dictionary as an example.

There is still a solid reason to develop lexicographical formats in a closed and controlled way, privileging balanced and systemised entries rather than entries that have been enriched in a random and more subjective fashion. And this is particularly true of retrospective formats. A second avenue is to think about the options for research and for grouping information. We will not be limited to consulting dictionaries through the use of plain text, as is still the case in most online specialised dictionaries. In this area, the handiest instruments are indexing and semantics-enabling, given their leverage potential. In the same way, we must first also be able to guarantee links to certain reference databases in the specialist areas at hand. Finally, whilst there is broad agreement on the attractiveness of multimedia companies, they still need to break away from the editorial preference for text in favour of sound and images. And audio-visual elements must not be reduced to ‘illustrations’ of the printed text; they must participate on the same level as the text as part of a global lexicographical concept.

This is the challenge faced by the new Historical Dictionary of Switzerland project that is currently being created in close collaboration with the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences. This is an excellent laboratory for historians as well as an opportunity to continue a centuries-old Swiss editorial tradition.

François Vallotton is a professor of modern history at the University of Lausanne and a member of the Foundation Board of the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. Vallotton specialises in the history of publishing and of the media.

The future of the dictionary

There is a general association between the growing child seeking to communicate with those around it and the emergence of language. The acquisition of lexical knowledge, however, is just as much an adult affair. Just think of the foreigner in a country whose language he or she doesn’t speak. Lexical knowledge allows humans to identify objects and concepts and to communicate them. What is changing today is not the role of lexical knowledge, but the way it is gathered and transmitted on a planetary level.

Throughout history there have been two types of coexistent knowledge: academic knowledge and common knowledge. The first has been set by the erudite and represents absolute knowledge: "this is the sense of that". The second is used on a daily basis and adapts according to that usage. Lexical knowledge is therefore set by experts and recorded in dictionaries, but it is then used in the street by people who are not necessarily so worried about checking whether the meaning they have for a word is actually the correct one.

At the end of 2014 the Encyclopædia Universalis headed into bankruptcy, and if we believe the press, this was the fault of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia that had "competed against", “disadvantaged" and then finally "killed" it. This might make one think that the collaborative encyclopaedia opposes traditional editions, but is it not merely their economic model that has been put into question?

With the advent of the Internet, lexical knowledge has entered the digital age, and with it has come its mode of diffusion. Publishers of dictionaries and encyclopaedias have adopted online versions to ensure that they remain up to date and find new readers. These paperless editions, however, feature content that is fundamentally the same. Nor does the price differ, despite their costs having been reduced by several orders of magnitude. The ‘crowd-sourcing’ Internet offers its ‘clients’ new possibilities, and not just the ability to answer questions. Internet users can now also take part in building such collaborative works as Wikipedia.

The proof of the capacity of this new model can be seen in the end-of-year figures for 2014. Wikipedia is available in more than 280 languages, and its corpus of articles contains more than 30 million entries.

Wikipedia does not go against the traditional model of gathering lexical knowledge. It complements it. With its ability to distribute the workload, it allows common and academic lexical knowledge to be combined. This means many tens of thousands of articles on Wikipedia in French, German and Italian cite the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland as a reference and link to the electronic version of it. This is the future of reference works such as the HDS: the ability to integrate into the network of knowledge hosted by the Internet, thereby creating the first universal lexical corpus.

Charles Andrès is a biologist who has been writing for Wikipedia since 2007. He has worked for Wikimedia Switzerland since 2013.