A couple of months ago, I received a phonecall from a journalist from the Herald, who’d seen my appearance on SBS World News, and was interested in writing an article about the mobile phone dictionary project.

A few things have happened between then and now, including conferences, holidays and a didjeridu performance by Nicole Kidman on German TV that seems to have absorbed all local interest in indigenous affairs for a few days1, but on Friday morning, two articles appeared in the front page section of the Herald, based in part on an interview I gave a little while back.

The main article is about Phil Parker, the marketing guru who’s recently delisted his ‘books’ on Australian languages (including dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books) after his dubious publications hit the virtual shelves, and after a small but vociferous group of linguists complained. The other article is about this mobile phone dictionary project that James and I are getting more and more involved in, and (very quickly) how this sort  of project can prevent the theft of data in the first place.

I feel that the article on Philip Parker makes me look like a bit of a whinger. Here’s the operative quote:

Aidan Wilson, a Sydney University linguist who wrote an honours thesis on the Wagiman language spoken north-west of Katherine, said Professor Parker had used the wrong spelling on the cover of his publication Webster’s English To Wageman Crossword Puzzles: Level 1.

Yes; it’s true that Parker had the wrong spelling, but it’s clearly not the reason I’m annoyed at the publication of these books. I’m more annoyed that the entirety of information within them is publicly available at locations that properly explain the data, the language, and cite sources, while these dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books omit all of this information. In short, they are lossy2 versions of dictionaries already freely available.

The article also makes it sound like we, speakers of indigenous communities and linguists working with them, have hindered the publication of useful educational resources due to our collective sensitivities. It doesn’t help the situation that Parker probably had his heart in the right place in wanting to further disseminate information relating to critically endangered languages.

A dyslexic, he collects lists of words and publishes dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzles at a loss, he says, in the interests of education. His work has been heralded as a way to create paper resources for resource-starved Third World students.

That’s all well and good, but perfectly good materials already exist – those that the linguists have produced and made freely available in full consultation with the language community. It surely isn’t helpful to convert these into forms in which the information is distilled and compressed such that it no longer conforms to even the minimum standard required for the most basic dictionary. All information apart from the name of the language, the headword and a single gloss has been omitted. That truly is lossy. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s an entry from the Online Wagiman Dictionary:

ngal-gawu-mang

nominal

1. grandmother (mother’s mother)

Ga-ngotjje-ji-n ngal-gawu-mang-gu. Ga-ngotjje-ji-n gahan warren yerdeng-nga ya-nggi, ngal-gawu-mang warle-na. ‘He is scared of his grandmother. That kid ran away and hid because his grandmother growled him.’ (LM)

2.grandchild (from a woman to her daughter’s children)

see also gawu, ngal-gawu.

You can see that there are no less than 6 tiers of information here; a headword, part of speech, glosses divided into multiple senses, illustrative sentences, their glosses and importantly, the speaker responsible for that illustrative sentence, as well as related words. Parkers dictionary merely has this:

ngal-gawu-mang
grandmother
grandchild

I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue that the latter is more useful than the former, or even that it is good for it to be around in addition to the original. I would even go as far to say that its existence in this form is potentially harmful and outweighs any possible benefits of it as an educational resource.

There is another issue that stems from this that deserves attention. Suppose you found one of these dictionaries for a language you’ve never heard of. Let’s say it has some pretty extraordinary stuff in it and you’d like to know more, or even go to the sources and do some fact checking. How do you go about doing it? There’s no citations given anywhere,  no examples have made it through the distillation process and no speakers are referenced. We’re in a different situation as we know the original is a good quality publication due to Stephen Wilson’s work, and can pretty much trust that the ‘distilled’ version will more or less be correct. But if Parker gave the same treatment to a highly dubious dictionary, Urban dictionary, let’s say, then the output looks just as authoritative as something that derived from a reputable source in the first place. This clearly makes it very difficult for readers of dictionaries to make informed decisions about the quality of what they’ve got.

I should reiterate that I think Parker had the best of intentions; to further disseminate information about as many languages as possible, something I naturally admire as a linguist. Yet he fails to recognise that lexicography is not easy work; it can’t be done just with a data-harvester, a spreadsheet and a bunch of automatically generated Amazon.com comments and reviews. It takes linguists and lexicographers years to compile the information and resources necessary to create dictionaries. Producing very low-quality dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzle books of some 600 worldwide languages does nothing but undermine their efforts.


  1. And that’s a whole nother post in its own right.
  2. To borrow an audio term.