Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reference: Digital Dictionaries

For a language that was initially considered to be too base to use in royal courts, German grammer is full of complex points, cases, directionality, and a number of segregations and labels that would impress even the most seasoned cataloger.

Over the years, I've just gotten used to looking up every fourth word in the dictionary, not because I didn't understand the meaning, but rather because I can't seem to memorize what most Germans consider to be simple operating details of the language. Like if the preposition 'through' should be used with the accusative or the dative case. Or if a spoon should be referred to with masculine, feminine or neuter articles.

Who thinks about spoons as having gender anyway? And if the spoon is masculine, why on earth is the fork feminine? And then why is the knife, the most phallic and suited to violence of all the silverware, neuter? I don't know anyone who would think of knives as being neutered. Then there are the plurals that don't have any kind of regularity in their endings. None of that English laziness where you just slap an s on the end. Nope, sometimes there's an ending change, sometimes a vowel change, sometimes both, sometimes neither.

But regardless, I've developed quite a thumb for thick dictionaries that include genders, plurals, cases, and idiomatic expressions, and so I was more than pleased to discover this dictionary project from The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences:
(sample record)

I was pleased because I can type far faster than I can look up something in the dictionary, even if I am pretty fast with those wiley reference tomes. Up until that point, I had been using this other project run by educators and academics in Munich:

Although the DWDS is a work in progress and many of the entries are incomplete, it is a beautiful accomplishment, even in the midst of its inadequacies. It includes all the information you might get from a standard dictionary as well as other features such as word relationship diagrams, a pool of example texts where the word occurs, and a list of synonyms.

It's a dictionary that's been redefined without the limitations imposed by the medium of bound paper, and it makes me hopeful. Because if digital dictionaries can become so effortlessly free of the limitations of the historical print format, maybe online catalogs can get there eventually as well.

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