Tag Archives: dictionaries

Bookish Reference

Thinking about reference books, these days.

Are models inspired by reference books (encyclopedias, dictionaries, phonebooks, atlases…) still relevant in the context of almost-ubiquitous Internet access?

I don’t have an answer but questions such as these send me on streams of thought. I like thought streaming.

One stream of thought relates to a discussion I’ve had with fellow Yulblogger Martin Lessard about “trust in sources.” IIRC, Lessard was talking more specifically about individuals but I tend to react the same way about “source credibility” whether the source is a single human being, an institution, or a piece of writing. Typically, my reaction is a knee-jerk one: “No information is to be trusted, regardless of the source. Critical thinking and the scientific method both imply that we should apply the same rigorous analysis to any piece of information, regardless of the alleged source.” But this reasoned stance of mine is confronted with the reality of people (including myself and other vocal proponents of critical thinking) acting, at least occasionally, as if we did “trust” sources differentially.

I still think that this trusty attitude toward some sources needs to be challenged in contexts which give a lot of significance to information validity. Conversely, maybe there’s value in trust because information doesn’t always have to be that valid and because it’s often more expedient to trust some sources than to “apply the same rigorous analysis to information coming from any source.”

I also think that there are different forms of trust. From a strong version which relates to faith, all the way to a weak version, tantamount to suspension of disbelief. It’s not just a question of degree as there are different origins for source-trust, from positive prior experiences with a given source to the hierarchical dimensions of social status.

A basic point, here, might be that “trust in source” is contextual, nuanced, changing, constructed… relative.

Second stream of thought: popular reference books. I’m still afraid of groupthink, but there’s something deep about some well-known references.

Just learnt, through the most recent issue of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access newsletter, some news about French reference book editor Larousse (now part of Hachette, which is owned by Lagardère) making a move toward Open Access. Through their Larousse.fr site, Larousse is not only making some of its content available for open access but it’s adding some user-contributed content to its site. As an Open Access enthusiast, I do find the OA angle interesting. But the user-content angle leads me in another direction having to do with reference books.

What may not be well-known outside of Francophone contexts is that Larousse is pretty much a “household name” in many French-speaking homes. Larousse dictionaries have been commonly used in schools and they have been selling quite well through much of the editor’s history. Not to mention that some specialized reference books published by Larousse, are quite unique.

To make this more personal: I pretty much grew up on Larousse dictionaries. In my mind, Larousse dictionaries were typically less “stuffy” and more encyclopedic in approach than other well-known French dictionaries. Not only did Larousse’s flagship Petit Larousse illustré contain numerous images, but some aspect of its supplementary content, including Latin expressions and proverbs, were very useful and convenient. At the same time, Larousse’s fairly extensive line of reference books could retain some of the prestige afforded its stuffier and less encyclopedic counterparts in the French reference book market. Perhaps because I never enjoyed stuffiness, I pretty much associated my view of erudition with Larousse dictionaries. Through a significant portion of my childhood, I spent countless hours reading disparate pieces of Larousse dictionaries. Just for fun.

So, for me, freely accessing and potentially contributing to Larousse feels strange. Can’t help but think of our battered household copies of Petit Larousse illustré. It’s a bit as if a comics enthusiast were not only given access to a set of Marvel or DC comics but could also go on the drawing board. I’ve never been “into” comics but I could recognize my childhood self as a dictionary nerd.

There’s a clear connection in my mind between my Larousse-enhanced childhood memories and my attitude toward using Wikipedia. Sure, Petit Larousse was edited in a “closed” environment, by a committee. But there was a sense of discovery with Petit Larousse that I later found with CD-ROM and online encyclopedias. I used a few of these, over the years, and I eventually stuck with Wikipedia for much of this encyclopedic fun. Like probably many others, I’ve spent some pleasant hours browsing through Wikipedia, creating in my head a more complex picture of the world.

Which is not to say that I perceive Larousse as creating a new Wikipedia. Describing the Larousse.fr move toward open access and user-contributed content, the Independent mostly compares Larousse with Wikipedia. In fact, a Larousse representative seems to have made some specific statements about trying to compete with Wikipedia. Yet, the new Larousse.fr site is significantly different from Wikipedia.

As Suber says, Larousse’s attempt is closer to Google’s knols than to Wikipedia. In contrast with the Wikipedia model but as in Google’s knol model, content contributed by users on the Larousse site preserves an explicit sense of authorship. According to the demo video for Larousse.fr, some specific features have been implemented on the site to help users gather around specific topics. Something similar has happened informally with some Wikipedians, but the Larousse site makes these features rather obvious and, as some would say, “user-friendly.” After all, while many people do contribute to Wikipedia, some groups of editors function more like tight-knit communities or aficionados than like amorphous groups of casual users. One interesting detail about the Larousse model is that user-contributed and Larousse contents run in parallel to one another. There are bridges in terms of related articles, but the distinction seems clear. Despite my tendency to wait for prestige structures to “just collapse, already,” I happen to think this model is sensible in the context of well-known reference books. Larousse is “reliable, dependable, trusty.” Like comfort food. Or like any number of items sold in commercials with an old-time feel.

So, “Wikipedia the model” is quite different from the Larousse model but both Wikipedia and Petit Larousse can be used in similar ways.

Another stream of thought, here, revolves around the venerable institution known as Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica recently made it possible for bloggers (and other people publishing textual content online) to apply for an account giving them access to the complete online content of the encyclopedia. With this access comes the possibility to make specific articles available to our readers via simple linking, in a move reminiscent of the Financial Times model.

Since I received my “blogger accreditation to Britannica content,” I did browse some article on Britannica.com. I receive Britannica’s “On This Day” newsletter of historical events in my inbox daily and it did lead me to some intriguing entries. I did “happen” on some interesting content and I even used Britannica links on my main blog as well as in some forum posts for a course I teach online.

But, I must say, Britannica.com is just “not doing it for me.”

For one thing, the site is cluttered and cumbersome. Content is displayed in small chunks, extra content is almost dominant, links to related items are often confusing and, more sadly, many articles just don’t have enough content to make visits satisfying or worthwhile. Not to mention that it is quite difficult to link to a specific part of the content as the site doesn’t use page anchors in a standard way.

To be honest, I was enthusiastic when I first read about Britannica.com’s blogger access. Perhaps because of the (small) thrill of getting “privileged” access to protected content, I thought I might find the site useful. But time and again, I had to resort to Wikipedia. Wikipedia, like an old Larousse dictionary, is dependable. Besides, I trust my sense of judgement to not be too affect by inaccurate or invalid information.

One aspect of my deception with Britannica relates to the fact that, when I write things online, I use links as a way to give readers more information, to help them exercise critical thinking, to get them thinking about some concepts and issues, and/or to play with some potential ambiguity. In all of those cases, I want to link to a resource which is straightforward, easy to access, easy to share, clear, and “open toward the rest of the world.”

Britannica is not it. Despite all its “credibility” and perceived prestige, Britannica.com isn’t providing me with the kind of service I’m looking for. I don’t need a reference book in the traditional sense. I need something to give to other people.

After waxing nostalgic about Larousse and ranting about Britannica, I realize how funny some of this may seem, from the outside. In fact, given the structure of the Larousse.fr site, I already think that I won’t find it much more useful than Britannica for my needs and I’ll surely resort to Wikipedia, yet again.

But, at least, it’s all given me the opportunity to stream some thoughts about reference books. Yes, I’m enough of a knowledge geek to enjoy it.

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Silly Minds Think Alike

One of the things I love about the ‘Net is that it makes you realize that just about anything you can think has been discussed by someone else before.

Case in point. Some of my friends have started playing Scrabble within Facebook using the Scrabulous.com application. So I eventually decided to play with one of those friends. This game is almost over (we take our turns whenever we’re on Facebook) and my friend is clearly winning, but playing Scrabble has made me think about quite a few things.

I used to love playing Scrabble (in French) when I was younger but pretty much didn’t play at all in the last seventeen years. I had never played in English before. After trying the Scrabulous version on Facebook, I tried a few games on the Scrabulous.com website itself, and started looking for different ways to play Scrabble on- or offline. Luckily enough, the Open Source Quackle does have support for French games. But I’m still nowhere as good as the computer player.

I don’t typically find fun in any kind of competition. I don’t want to be the best at anything. I just want to be happy.

Things I find fun can be quite silly.

And I do find Scrabble fun. As per an overly simplified version of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, things are fun when they’re doable yet challenging. Playing Scrabble against a bot which has access to the complete dictionary isn’t that much fun. Many of the words played by computer players (or highly competitive players) are extremely obscure. Now, it can be interesting to learn about all about qat and cwm, but this type of Scrabble becomes overbearing after a while.

So my favourite plays at Scrabble were with people who were not totally crazy at playing Scrabble. I remember one play where adding two letters made me score a rather amazing number of points because a high value tile was played on a high value square and was used for two different words. I don’t remember the exact score of any of this but it was quite high and satisfying for the mere rarity of the event. In fact, it’s quite possible that this play I remember so vividly was made by one of the other two player. Yet I only remember the glory of the moment.

Actually, it seems that players who are of a somewhat lower calibre than expert players may end up breaking records because they’re less competitive. But I digress even more than I should.

Point is, I find beauty in Scrabble when it’s not just about strategies for putting the largest number of obscure words on the board and blocking other players. In fact, I’d rather play something that I find neat even if it scores lower. For instance, I enjoyed adding “queen” to “ship” for the mere fact that “queenship” is a neat word (I wasn’t even sure it existed). Also, I like the ability to string two words together to make a new one. Call me crazy. Must come from my language science background.

So… I started thinking about variants. In one variant I had in mind, a player can invent one new word every game as long as s/he can provide a definition for it. This word would then be added to the working dictionary to be used in future games. In another variant, words from multiple languages could be used. In yet another variant, proper names could be used. In perhaps my favourite variant, words which relate to another word on the board would gain the points from that other word (all players would need to agree on the connection).

Possibilities are endless. And many of these variants would be rather easy to implement on a computer-based platform. For instance, all variants which relate to dictionaries could be implemented through the use of custom dictionaries. And alternative scoring rules could be added to a Scrabble program through the use of bonus points or some such.

One variant I thought about which could be quite interesting for language scientists would be IPA Scrabble or Scrabble using the International Phonetic Alphabet. Players could use IPA characters to “spell out” valid words using either narrow or broad phonetic transcription strategies. So, in some cases, ˈlɪtl̩ or ˈlɪtɫ̩ could be allowed. Personally, I’d be one to accept a rather broad range of even impressionistic variants, including “litl” and “lidl” even though they miss some transcription details.

Such a game could be quite fun for people who have working knowledge of IPA and it doesn’t sound so hard to implement. What’s more, it could help people get used to IPA transcription, which is often a good thing in language sciences.

Well, as it turns out, I’m not the only one who thought about IPA Scrabble. A simple Google search for these two turns returns several relevant hits including: a wishlist for fun language things in which IPA Scrabble is assumed to exist; a page for a linguistics club which lists IPA Scrabble as one of their activities; and a page citing Scrabble variants which lists the IPA magnets as a Scrabble-like game. As my wife happens to have these IPA magnets, I was thinking about the same exact thing.

What’s funny about this last page I mentioned as a result for my “IPA Scrabble” Google search is that author Jed Hartman spoke my mind, back in 1998:

I like playing word games for fun rather than competitively. So I like the general idea of Scrabble®, but I don’t much enjoy playing it with devotees of the game; they tend to score lots of points by playing dozens of two-letter words that nobody except The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary has ever used. vv is for vvariants

Three of the six variants he lists are quite close to what I had in mind

  • Multidirectional Scrabble
  • Wraparound Scrabble
  • Multi-Source Scrabble (similar to my multi-language version)
  • Stackable Scrabble
  • Plausible Scrabble (similar to my word-addition version)
  • IPA Crossword (similar to my IPA Scrabble)

So, I don’t score for originality on this one. Ah, well.

I do wonder if Hartman himself has played all of these variants. And I wonder how implementable they all are through computer versions. My hunch is that any competent program could easily implement most of them within certain limits. For instance, the multi-source variant would only need dictionary files to be implemented but such dictionary files may be hard to come by. Although, with initiatives like Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary, it may be relatively trivial to get wordlists for use in dictionary files.

One thing this all made me think of is the fact that there’s indeed a lot of data available out there and that uses of data may not be entirely predicted by the type of data used. Ok, sure, the leaps from online dictionaries to wordlists to dictionary files to multi-source Scrabble are rather obvious. But chances are that most contributors to Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary weren’t thinking of multi-source Scrabble when they added most of those entries. There’s a whole thing about human-readable vs. machine-readable data involved here. And it all makes me think about newish approaches to data management, such as Freebase (results for “Scrabble”) and Mahalo (results for “Scrabble”).