The Latin dictionary — digital or physical?

Welsh Latin dictionary 1632, John Davis Mallwyd.JPG
Welsh-Latin dictionary 1632, John Davis Mallwyd (wikimedia)
I’ve been writing a syllabus for an undergraduate Latin seminar and thinking about whether or not to have my students buy a specific Latin-English dictionary. After seeing some slides from a presentation on twitter that came out of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference on the burden of the cost of textbooks on students, I became reaffirmed recently in my dedication to try to make as many of the readings (and visual/material culture) on my syllabuses come from Open Access or at least online sources. With the way things are going, this is becoming easier and easier. But a dictionary should be part of a Classicist’s arsenal, right?
I went to twitter first to ask what Latin-English dictionaries instructors have assigned to their Latin students. The one that I used as a beginning Latin student, and still sometimes use, is the Langenscheidt pocket dictionary. But it’s not so easy to get your hands on in the US. The most popular suggestions from twitter were Cassell’s, Chambers Murray, with some votes for Traupman; although one respondent mentioned that they got into trouble with Traupman when doing Latin prose composition, and switched to Lewis & Short. None of these is especially expensive (under $10), although both Chambers Murray and Langenscheidt are tricky to get new copies of.  It’s clear that we hold on to the tools that we begin learning with very fondly — even though I teach in the US now I still can’t give up Kennedy’s Latin primer, whose table of principal parts I have given to every Latin class I’ve ever taught. (The reason why Kennedy’s is a problem to use with US students is that the case order is N./V. Acc. Gen. Dat. Abl. rather than Nom. Gen. Dat. Acc. Abl.).

My next question (via a twitter poll) was whether Latin instructors encourage their students to use online dictionary tools.  My assumption, just based on casual discussions or passing comments with colleagues IRL, is that many would be against it just in principle. But perhaps asking Latin instructors on twitter is not the venue for cynicism about digital tools. As I write the poll isn’t closed yet, but the majority of respondents use digital tools in some form. Cillian O’Hogan () replied that he had that day taught his students how to use Logeion’s online version of Lewis & Short; he also mentioned that he gives lessons in how to use physical dictionaries, including a demonstration of their shortcomings. The important thing here, whether you have your students use physical or digital dictionaries, is to dedicate time to demonstrate how to use them. It’s not degrading to anyone to take the time to meditate on issues or forms which seem self-evident — in fact, it can be quite a profound experience.

I recently read a discussion by Geoffrey Nunberg of the limits of the physical editions of the Oxford English Dictionary that have been overcome in its online edition:

The advent of online historical corpora has also altered the lexicographer’s method. Word sleuthery has become a game that anyone with access to a search engine can play. It’s not hard to find examples that antedate the OED’s earliest citations for words, particularly in the modern period. The first use of Ms. listed in the second edition was from 1949; the Wall Street Journal’s language columnist Ben Zimmer tracked it back to 1901.

The issue with online Latin dictionaries is probably not so much about the quality of its contents as much as the question of whether use of a digital dictionary is detrimental to the student’s progress in language acquisition. Anecdotally, we classicists as a group seem to think that using a physical dictionary leads to better vocabulary retention. After I posted the twitter poll, Clara Shaw Hardy () responded with a blog piece in which she described her own experiments with students, who tried both physical and digital dictionaries and reported their experiences; Hardy also cites an article in Teaching Classical Languages by Jacqueline Carlon arguing that students retain vocabulary that they learn “the hard way.” Hardy also put forward the suggestion that online dictionaries develop a means of quizzing students on the words which they have looked up in a given session. Patrick Burns responded to this with a blog piece of his own, which is a tutorial on how to use Learning with Texts (LWT) to learn vocabulary in context. 

All in all, I’m encouraged by the fact that many classicists are not ideologically opposed to using digital dictionaries. Although there is evidence that doing things the old fashioned way has better results, in a world where students are more naturally inclined to turn to the internet as a source of knowledge, I think that there is something to be said for using rigorous, philological online lexical tools like Logeion. Whether physical or digital, dictionaries are a technology that need to be explained, explored, and contextualized. I feel that a lot of the resistance to digital forms probably comes from an inherent conservatism within classics that says more about the discipline than it does about the functionality or pedagogical outcomes that result from use of digital dictionaries. The important thing is to explore different avenues with an open mind, rather than allowing cynicism to hold you back from new teaching opportunities.

 

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3 thoughts on “The Latin dictionary — digital or physical?

  1. True confession: I like the hardbound Cassell’s because it has the cutout bits on the right margin that show you where the various letters start. It’s also a workable enough dictionary. If that doesn’t do it I go to Lewis and Short.

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  2. I do worry about the easy access and the right timing of starting to use dictionaries – the textbook and frequency sidebar elements are there to make clear that a word is worth writing a flashcard for, and I always hope instructors will point this out: this was in your textbook, this is in top 1000 (or what have you). When a student is lost on syntax, they sometimes think enlightenment will come in obscure dictionary meaning III.B.8.g, when in fact they needed to re-read the sentence and its context.

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