Ideographic Dictionary or Thesaurus

Based on the book V. V. Morkovkin «Ideographic Dictionaries» (1970)

Two approaches to arrangement of words in the dictionary

At present dictionaries are probably the most popular reference books. They are so firmly grown in our lives, in the learning process, that it's hard to find anyone who has no idea about the meaning of the word «dictionary». But what is a dictionary? If you appeal for the answer to the famous dictionary of S.I. Ozhegov, on the page 720 we can read: «Dictionary is a collection of words arranged in alphabetical order, with explanations, interpretations, or translated into another language». Indeed, this definition does not contradict our everyday experience. So far lexical material in the dictionaries is located mainly in alphabetical order. We are so used to such location, that it seems the most reasonable, the most comfortable and the only feasible one. Yet this is not the case.

Language, as a system of signs2 constitutes an organic unity with our thinking. Thinking reflects a dynamic process of human's cognition of reality and forms human’s knowledge. Therefore, knowledge is the product of human understanding of objects and phenomena of reality, of the laws of nature and society. Knowledge is imprinted in words. As a unit of language, the word has a symbolic nature. Linguists, who admit the thesis of language as a system of signs, differ in the interpretation of the word as a sign. Some of them believe that the sign nature is essential only for material covering of the word, assigned to certain meaning3. It seems that more correct is another point of view, going back to Ferdinand de Saussure, and shared by many linguists. According to this view, the word as sign is bilateral unity of «signifier» and «signified», which as a whole is correlated to the object of the reality. «We designate a sign as the combination of an idea and an acoustic image» - says Ferdinand de Saussure4. In terms of expression a word is represented by acoustic shell, in terms of meaning - by an idea. The main function of the word is in separation and designation of fragments of the cognizable world. A collection of words can, therefore, in a sense, be considered a reflection or correlation to reality. But the reality, which is reflected in the language, is not a chaotic conglomeration of separate facts. In fact, we tend to see the structure. As our knowledge of the world is constantly evolving, so far is continually improving the lexical organism of the language. New words are not merely mechanically added to the existing ones, but are placed in the previously formed system in our mind. This system, of course, must be to a certain extent similar to the system of reality. In this regard, we can remember the known words of N.V. Krushewski: «We must never lose sight of the principal nature of the language: the word is a sign of the thing. The conception of a thing and the conception of a word denoting this thing are linked by law of association in an inseparable pair ... If the conception of the thing is inseparable from the conception of the appropriate word, what does that mean? The words are to be classified in the mind in the same groups as the things denoted by them»5. So, back to the question of the nature of arrangement of words in the dictionary, it can be argued that the very nature of words allows the possibility of their ambiguous grouping:

  • a) by adjacency of sounding;
  • b) by semantic affinity.

The implementation of the first possibility leads to creation of alphabetical dictionaries. The strong point of these dictionaries is that they provide a considerable flexibility in inquiring of different sorts of occasional references of any word known to us by sounding. This fact and the exceptional ease of alphabetical arrangement of words led to predominant status of alphabetical dictionaries. Considerations of practical convenience overshadow the consciousness that the system of alphabetically arranged words doesn’t absolutely correlate with the system of our knowledge of the world. I think there is a suggestion of truth in the polemically brusque words of V.I. Dal, who said in his «Wish word» that the way of alphabetical arrangement of words is «very dull and cold. The closest and the most related expressions ... are scattered far apart and are languishing here and there in solitude: every living link of speech is broken and lost ..., there is no energy to read such a dictionary, on the tenth word the mind will become dull and we will turn the head, because the mind demands in everything some reasonable connection, graduality and consistency»6. An alternative to alphabetical arrangement of the words is their placement by semantic proximity. The dictionary, in which vocabulary is arranged based on this criterion, is called ideographic (from the Greek idea - concept, idea, image, and grapho – to write).

Ideographic Dictionary - what is it for?

The question naturally arises: what problems ideographic dictionary resolves, and in which areas of scientific activity it can be used? The answer to this question can be found in the theoretical work of such well-known foreign lexicologists and lexicographer as J. Casares, W. von Wartburg and F. Dornzayf. In Russia, this question was studied by I.A. Gulyanov, I.I. Sreznevsky, L.V. Scerba and some other linguists. Vocabulary of any language is represented for each of its informants in the form of active and passive layers. The active layer includes words of everyday use, the words that we do not have to look for in the corners of the memory, as soon as there is a need to name the appropriate phenomenon. These words are always with us. The relationship between the signifier and the signified, between the sound shell of the word and it’s concept for the words of active layer can be symbolically written as S↔C, which means that there is an effective two-way relationship from the sound to the concept and from the concept to the sound. Passive layer embraces the words, meaning of which we know, but which are not our everyday words. We recognize them in writing or in the speech of interlocutor, but they do not come to mind immediately, as soon as we have a need for them, i.e. they do not help us to form a judgment. Here, the relationship between the sound form and the concept is written as S → C, indicating the existence of effective relationship in only one direction - from the sound to the concept. The backward relationship is very much weakened or even broken.

But even speaking of the active layer, it must be admitted that the relationship from the sound to the concept S → C is a much more reliable, more regular and shorter. Denomination is a much more difficult (in comparison with understanding), and much more prone to error, which was convincingly confirmed by experience in the work of J. Casares7.

The conclusion is that if we believe that a book that helps us to understand a speech or writing (alphabetical dictionary) is extremely useful, it no less essential is the book, which provides us with the entire set of words united by some idea that would facilitate an active grasp of the language (ideographic dictionary). In this regard, it would be desirable to quote the person who made more than others, to awake the interest in the problem of ideographic dictionary in Europe. We are talking about the English scientist P.M. Roget, the author of «Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases». In the preface to his dictionary, he wrote: «... However distinct may be our views, however vivid our conceptions, or however fervent our emotions, we cannot but be often conscious that the phraseology we have at our command is inadequate to do them justice. We seek in vain the words we need, and strive ineffectually to devise forms of expression which shall faithfully portray our thoughts and sentiments. The appropriate terms, notwithstanding our utmost efforts, cannot be conjured up at will. Like ‘spirits from the vasty deep,’ they come not when we call; and we are driven to the employment of a set of words and phrases either too general or too limited, too strong or too feeble, which suit not the occasion, which hit not the mark we aim at. The assistance it gives (ideographic dictionary) is that of furnishing on every topic a copious of store of words and phrases, adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modifications of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged»8.

It is interesting that most of the authors of existing ideographic dictionaries after P.M. Roget limit importance of their work by considerations of the ease of the choosing of the most appropriate words to adequately express the thoughts. Such a purely pragmatic point of view, clearly underestimates the true significance of dictionary of this type. The same, if not greater, importance they have for various lexicological and ethnographical inquiries. The need for ideographic dictionary is felt primarily in the comparative study of the vocabularies of different languages. The basis of this type of comparison is the thesis of the inseparable link between the language and the thought. Thinking has universal nature. The semantic continuum is common for all languages. However, each individual language segments this continuum specifically and differently. The analytical power and the level of development of the language are characterized by a degree of verbal detail of each part of this continuum. Thus, the study of the nature of representation of a meaningful segment of the semantic continuum in the lexicon of a language is an important task of comparative lexicology. The ideographic dictionary can and must help in solving of this task; it provides researcher with the whole group of words that correspond to certain idea.

Ideographic dictionary by the mere fact of placing of related words alongside makes it possible to predict the various syntactic and semantic changes (e.g., change of verb government by analogy, etc.).

The arrangement of words into groups related by semantic bonds will make it possible to some extent to solve the problem of compiling of the dictionary of synonyms and antonyms. «The semantic structure of the word includes it in the system of themes; the theme can include great number of words; it can be divided into subtopics, and groups, and to be quantitatively limited. The proximity of the words within a certain thematic group is different. The limit of this thematic proximity is synonymic series»9, i.e., within a thematic group synonymous series will be deliberately exhausted. On the other hand, taking into account that a reasonable contraposition of words supposes that they belong to the same thematic group, we can conclude that ideographic dictionary will be at the same time the most complete dictionary of antonyms.

As for lexicography, besides creation a certain precedent in compiling of the dictionary of this type, ideographic dictionary will allow more proficiently to determine the meaning of the words in the explanatory dictionaries and will provide a sound basis for creation of Russian-foreign and foreign-Russian dictionaries. «The fact that some thing, which is denominated by single word in one language, may have extremely detailed nomenclature enclosing dozens of titles in another languages. ... The words, which are identical in meaning, may occupy unequal position even in the systems of closely related languages; they perform different function and, therefore, are not absolutely monosemantic»10.

Use of the word implies its choice from a variety of semantically related words. The semantic meaning of each word is in inverse proportion to the number of words in the set, and is in direct proportion to the length of the segment of the semantic continuum that covers the set. This fact is a ground for one of the fundamental points of the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure - the proposition of the value of the linguistic sign. «... Language is a system whose parts can and must all be considered in their synchronic solidarity. Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others. Being part of a system, the word is endowed not only with a signification but also and especially with a value, and this is something quite different. Within the same language, all words used to express related ideas limit each other reciprocally. The value of just any term is accordingly determined by its environment»11. Thus, in order to correlate the word of one language with a word of another language, it is necessary to know what position occupies each of these words in the corresponding sets. To know this, you need a good ideographic dictionary.

Finally, ideographic dictionary is of great importance in study of the history of human knowledge of the world. If we superimpose thematically organized vocabulary of the same language of different epochs, our eyes will see an objective picture of the evolution of human knowledge. We will see as one theme is growing while another one is shrinking; how the soul-searching within the same theme is happening; how words and many other curious and interesting facts are appearing and relegating to oblivion. Being to some extent as a mirror of the epoch, the vocabulary of language reflects the level of people's ideas about some events, and sometimes characterizes the phenomena themselves. Even glimpse of the thematic classification adopted in one of the most ancient ideographic dictionaries of «Amarakosha» gives ground for estimating the degree of development of science and of the social order, of the beliefs and artistic thinking, typical for that distant age.

1 They are usually contrasted with encyclopedic dictionaries, which provide a description of the objects, events, phenomena, etc.

2 Calling the language a system of signs, you should keep in mind that the sign representation - is just one of the functions of language. To consider a language as just a system of signs - means to simplify and to roughen the matter. Consideration of the language as a system of signs is one of the ways of language modeling.

3 A. S. Melnychuk. On the Nature of the Linguistic Sign. In collection "Theoretical Problems of Modern Linguistics". Moscow, Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1964.

4 Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics. Moscow. Sotsekgiz, 1933, page 78.

5 N.V. Krushevskiy. Essay on the Science of Language. Kazan, 1883, page 67.

6 V.I. Dal. Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language. v. 1. Moscow, GIS, 1955, p. XVIII. 1955, стр. XVIII.

7 J. Casares. Nuevo concepto del diccionario de la lengua. Madrid, 1941.

8 Cite of the book. "P. M. Roget's thesaurus of English words and phrases». N. Y., 1911, p. 5.

9 M.F. Palevskaya. On some facts of the development of semantic structure of the verb. "Materials of the all-USSR Conference on General Linguistics". Samarkand, 1966, page 162.

10 V.A. Zvegintsev. Semasiology. Moscow State University Press, 1957, page 89.

11 Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics, pp. 114 - 115.

12 I.A. Gulyanov. Speech about formation and existence of the languages. SPb., 1821, pp. 19-21.