O, what to do with instincts and lexicography…

I’m beginning research on how to study a noun’s semantic potential and came across Atkins and Rundel’s (2008) Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography and decided to jump to chapter 5, titled “Linguistic Theory meets Lexicography”. Here’s the first couple sentences, which already have my mind humming.

“By the nature of the work they do, lexicographers are applied linguists. Yet many people working in the field have no formal training in linguistics. Does this matter? Our experience as editorial managers suggests that good lexicographers operate to a large extent on the basis of instinct, sound judgment, and accumulated expertise” (Atkins and Rundel 2008:130)

While people making dictionaries of modern languages may be able to get away with this reliance on instinct, we who study ancient languages are not so fortunate.

  • What precautions do we take?
  • How much do we trust our (next-to-nothing?) intuitive powers?
  • How did lexicographers of the past account for this?
  • Or did they make their lexicons in much the same way as current lexicographers of modern languages?
    • If so, should we question their conclusions with more than the regular amount of skepticism that should accompany any lexical semantic investigation?

Don’t be afraid to chime in. What other questions should be asked?


7 thoughts on “O, what to do with instincts and lexicography…

  1. I think you may be focusing in on “instinct” too exclusively here, as opposed to that forming one part of a three part formulation including “sound judgment, and accumulated expertise.” I think the other two parts of the formulation help to fill in the types questions you are asking from the perspective of OGPL since I don’t think throughout the rest of the book they overemphasize reliance on instinct. For example, for your question one:

    – What precautions do we take? Instincts are constrained by developing methods for sound judgment, which are honed as lexicographers accumulate expertise.

    I’ve spent a good bit of time with Atkins and Rundell, and I think that’s the kind of answer they would put forth and for which they lay out some fairly specific criteria.

    • Yeah, you’re probably right. I guess the big question in the back of my mind is just “how does this apply to people studying ancient languages?” because in my interaction with traditional BH lexicons, I don’t doubt that the great lexicographers of the past were short in sound judgment or expertise, but because they really never spelled out how they got to certain lexical semantic conclusions (in for instance the preface), I’m just left to trust their “constrained instincts”.

      So in my head, I guess I’m wishing that if this 3 part method is to similarly be applied to the biblical languages that the “sound judgment” part would be more explicit to the lexicon-user (which would, of course, inevitably aid the lexicographer in his/her assessment).

      [PS what does OGPL stand for?]

      • Ah. Sorry, I’ve used that book so much I’ve resorted to shorthand – OGPL=Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography.

        You’re right that there’s definitely a difference dealing with an ancient language. We don’t have access to the same types of linguistic intuitions because we didn’t learn the language as a native speaker would have. Then there seems to be little in the way of a systematic equivalent for an ancient language to something like OGPL saying – here’s what modern lexicography looks like (as opposed to lexicology or lexical semantics), but here’s what that looks like in the context of an ancient language.

        It seems the instincts of earlier lexicographers were constrained by conceptions of word meaning prevalent during their time (or later that were a part of their lexicographic tradition). So, mostly historical-philological concerns. And, you’re right, that they never really spelled that out. And, those methods are certainly outdated.

        But, at some level, I don’t think it’s possible to escape our general intuitions in lexicography, for example, in things like lumping or splitting senses, or where to cut off what’s helpful in a definition from what’s not. You try to have a good framework for making principled decisions and to push your intuitions as far back into the process as you can, but at some point you have to make a decision and move on. Like there’s one place in Job where there’s a hapax that the lexica say refers either to an egg white or a slimy kind of plant (and probably a myriad of other suggestions in commentaries and articles). There’s not a whole lot you can do with something like that than your best.

        • Yeah, definitely. At some point we’re gonna be using some intuition, and hopefully it’s been “refined” enough through our methodological/theoretical framework.

          I know you’ve read some of Geeraerts’s “Theories of Lexical Semantics”, but when I was first introduced to it, I was surprised by his remark that historical-philological semantics has a lot in common with cognitive linguistics. Cf. the first real paragraph of page 177. And for convenience, here’s an excerpt from my MA thesis:

          “In the big picture, Geeraerts (ibid.: 277) has observed a cyclical pattern in which the Cognitive enterprise seems to share many of the tenets which the historical-philological approach first articulated. For instance, both approaches find meaning to be deeply connected to the mind and assume an ‘encyclopedic’ orientation of meaning from the beginning rather than one anchored in the vacuum of autonomy. Furthermore, both are interested in the condition and causes of the polysemous and flexible nature of meaning (ibid.).”

          And yes, hapaxes are never fun! ;)

          • This is definitely one of the reasons I like Geeraert’s book so much (I’ve spent a good bit of time with it too). He highlights continuity and correspondence as well as difference. He also draws out connections between cognitive linguistic approaches to lexical semantics and neostructuralist lexical semantics in the chapter on neostructuralism. That was helpful for me because the project that I’ve been working on is technically neostructuralist.

            I recently read Pieter Seuren’s retrospective on Chomsky on Seuren’s blog. He says that this is one of the problems with Chomsky. He stressed generative linguistics as a break with structuralism, whereas in many ways it was dependent on and an outgrowth of structuralism.

            I guess in the academic world you have to in some ways stress that your work is new in order to even get it approved, i.e. if it’s not that new, what’s the point in doing it. But, sometimes I think that the continuity between approaches suffers in that regard. For example, I can totally see how the interests of historical-philological linguists would be related to something like research on grammaticalization. But, that quote from Geeraerts is one of the first ones I’ve seen that links historical-philological linguistics to post-structuralist linguistic endeavors.

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