wikipedia before wikipedia 02.11.2009, 4:50 PM
posted by dan visel
I've been reading Tom McArthur's Worlds of Reference: lexicography, learning and language from the clay tablet to the computer, a history of dictionaries, encyclopedias and reference materials published in 1986. The last section, titled "Tomorrow's World" is interesting in hindsight: having looked at the major shifts that have occurred in how cultures have used lexicography, McArthur is aware that things change in unimaginable ways. He shies away from making detailed predictions about how the computer will change the dictionary or the encyclopedia; but he does find an interesting model for how the collaborative creation of knowledge might work in the future. Because I haven't seen this mentioned online, I'll quote this at length:
. . . I am considering something much more radically interesting: turning students on occasion into once-in-a-lifetime Sam Johnsons and Noah Websters.
At least one remarkable precedent exists for this idea: a project undertaken between 1978 and 1982 on the lower East Side of New York City which produced a "Trictionary" without a single really-truly lexicographer being involved.
The Trictionary is a 400-page trilingual English/Spanish/Chinese wordbook, covering a base vocabulary of some 3,000 items per language. Much of the basic cost was covered by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the bulk of the work was done on the premises of the Chatham Square branch of the New York Public Library, on East Broadway. The librarian there, Virginia Swift, was glad to provide the accommodation, while the original idea was developed by Jane Shapiro, a teacher of English as a Second Language at Junior High School 65, helped through all the stages the work by Mary Scherbatoskoy of ARTS (Art Resources for Teachers and Students). They organized the work, but they were not the compilers as such.
The compilation was done, as The New Yorker reports (10 May 1982) "by the spare-time energy of some 150 young people from the neighborhood", aged between 10 and 15, two afternoons a week over three years. New York is the multilingual city par excellence, in which, as the report points out, "some of its citizens live in a kind of linguistic isolation, islanded in their languages". The Trictionary was an effort to do something about that kind of isolation and separateness. One method used in the project was getting together a group of youngsters variously skilled in English, Spanish and Chinese and "brainstorming" over, say, the word ANIMALS written on an otherwise empty blackboard. They would think of animals and considered how they were labelled in each language, putting their triples on the board and arguing about the legitimacy of particular terms. Another method was the review session, a more sophisticated activity where a stack of blue cards with English words on them was used to create equivalent stacks in pink for Spanish and yellow for Chinese. It was out of this kind of interactive effort that the Trictionary developed, until in its final form it had a blue section with English first, a second section that was yellow and Chinese, and a third section that was pink and Spanish. Each part had three columns per page, with each language appropriately presented. In all three sections, the material was punctuated here and there by line drawings done by the youngsters themselves.
Jane Shapiro told The New Yorker that when she first went to work in the area she had had no idea what the language situation was like. The neighbourhood is about 80% Chinese and 20% Spanish-speaking, and in class she had often found herself in the position of comparing all three languages. Out of that "small United Nations" came the idea for the book, because she had often wished for such a book, but of course no right-minded publisher had ever thought of that particular combination as commercially viable or academically interesting. Additionally, and damningly, Shapiro felt that what dictionaries were available "were either too stiff or out of date or written on a linguistic level far different from that of the students". In other words, because formal lexicography had nothing to offer, grass-roots lexicography had to serve instead.
As with Vaugelas, neighbourhood usage was the authority, and as work progressed the women and their charges actually kept away from published dictionaries so as to be sure that the words came from the youngsters themselves. Reality also prevailed, in that there is a fair quantity of legal and medical terms in the book. These were included because the children often served as interpreters between their elders and lawyers and doctors. Motivation was high, despite a shifting population of helpers, evidently because the children could see the practical utility of what they were doing. One youngster engaged in the work was Iris Chu, born in Venezuela of Chinese parents and brought to New York about five years earlier. She told The New Yorker that she made a lot of friends while working on the Trictionary (the opposite to what often happens to lexicographers), adding: "It's funny to see it as a book now – before, it was just something we did every week. I'm really sorry it's over. For us, it was a whole lot of fun."
It was also a prototype for a whole new kind of educational lexicography (with or without the additional advantage, where available, of electronic and other aids). The ancient Sumerians and the medieval Scholastics would have understood the general idea of the Trictionary very well, and Comenius would certainly have approved of it. I approve of it whole-heartedly because it simply broke the mould of conventional thinking. Additionally, we can see in the brain-storming sessions and the use of the cards the two modes of lexicography creatively at work side by side: themes and word relationships on one side, alphabetic order on the other. The women of the lower East Side certainly discovered a formula for getting the taxonomic urge working in ways that are just as spectacular as any instrument that beeps, blinks and hums.
(pp. 181–183.) There doesn't seem to be much trace of the Trictionary online; a cursory search finds the New Yorker article that McArthur refers to (behind their paywall). The New York Center for Urban Folk Culture seems to be selling copies for $5; their page for the project gives it a minimal description and has images of some of the pages.
Posted by dan visel on February 11, 2009 4:50 PM