The 16th Annual International AFRILEX Conference
UNAM, Windhoek, Namibia, 5-7 July 2011

[Abstract:] Lubinda, John M.: Packaging  phonetic  information in dictionaries of languages of the Sotho-Tswana cluster

A dictionary is said to be “a carrier of text types representing a variety of different  texts” (Gouws, 2002 : 55) and  information  categories of various  types.  The selection of the information categories to be included in a dictionary is important. But equally important is the manner in which the selected information is packaged and displayed for easy access and retrieval by the target user.  One of the entry components in the central list of a linguistic dictionary is the indication of the pronunciation of each recorded lemma. As Bo Svensén (2009 : 114) notes, “the need for pronunciation information in dictionaries varies  between languages [and] ….. between different types of dictionaries”.  He points out that in a language such as  Finnish (and to a lesser extent, Italian or Spanish) where there is a one-to-one correspondence between spelling and pronunciation there is  hardly any need to provide information on pronunciation.  But in a language like English, where  there is little correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, and where the position of word stress is not predictable, there is need to provide this type of information. He further points out that the need to include information on pronunciation is largely determined by the type of dictionary one wishes to compile, in terms of the intended target user group and dictionary  typology. A monolingual dictionary intended primarily for native speakers of the object language hardly needs indications on pronunciation, except for occasional loan words.  On the other hand, a learner’s  dictionary of production and aural reception needs information on pronunciation at the segmental and suprasegmental levels.  Once the question of whether or not to represent pronunciation has been settled, one has to decide on the best way of presenting (“packaging”) this information. Another important question that needs to be addressed is that of variation in pronunciation (regional, social or stylistic).  Is the dictionary compiler going to account for regional, social and  stylistic forms of pronunciation as well or simply confine himself/herself to the pronunciation of the variety of the language chosen as the standard  variety?  Mavoungou (2010 : 98), among others,  points out that the absence of indications on pronunciation in Gabonese dictionaries (especially the omission of tone-marking) is one of the weak points of Gabonese lexicography.  This is generally true of Bantu lexicography, in languages of the Sotho-Tswana cluster.  Until relatively recently (from about the early nineteen-nineties to the present), scant attention was paid to this entry component by dictionary compilers in these languages. However, with the advent of electronic dictionaries with audio recordings, the pronunciation component of the dictionary is increasingly receiving scholarly attention. Moreover, different conventional methods of notation have been tried, including what is often termed  “respelling”.  Atkins and  Rundell (2008 : 206) remind us that “the most common way of showing how a word is  pronounced is to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)”.  The pertinent question that arises, in this regard, is : Are the target users sufficiently familiar with the  IPA or with the Alphabet of the International African Institute, as a useful adjunct to the learning of the pronunciation of the target language ?  Can they accurately interpret phonetic transcription ?

In the study that forms the basis of the proposed paper, a dozen selected dictionary tokens of major languages of the Sotho-Tswana cluster (Setswana, Sesotho, Northern Sotho and Silozi) were examined with a view to finding out how pronunciation is presented and displayed in these dictionaries. Reference details of these dictionaries are given in the actual conference paper, including a discussion of the manner in which pronunciation information is handled in each of these dictionaries. Preliminary findings indicate that only one dictionary contains information pertaining to pronunciation, in the form of phonetic transcription, in the nomenclature. The other nine devote only brief sections in the front or mid matter to comments on pronunciation, such as the presentation of vowel  and consonant charts of the languages as well as attempting to explain letter values in relation to other languages,  like English. Some of them do not even have any comment at all on pronunciation. It is clear, therefore, that so far, scant scholarly attention has been paid to the phonetic form of lemmata by compilers of these dictionaries. The paper is therefore an attempt at dictionary criticism on this particular entry component of the dictionary.

The paper revisits this topic, which is still of current interest, in light of common lexicographic practices observable in some recently published dictionaries  of some  Bantu languages of the Sotho-Tswana cluster. It examines the various potentialities of the combination  of  the printed  dictionary and  audio recordings, in the era of the electronic dictionary and  the dictionary on CD-ROM or on-line.. The merits and demerits of “respelling”, as a compromise solution are re-examined.  At the prosodic level, various conventional methods of marking tone (register and contour tone) are examined in light of current practices and propositions are made.


Atkins, S. & Rundell (2008) The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography,  Oxford  University Press,  Oxford.

Bo Svensén (2009)  A  Handbook of Lexicography : The Theory and Practice of Dictionary-making,  Cambridge University  Press,  Cambridge.

Gouws, R. H. (2002)  “Using  a Frame Structure to Accommodate Cultural  Data”, in   Éléments de Lexicographie Gabonaise,  Tome II,  Jamacs-Hillman Publishers.

Mavoungou, P.A. (2010) Lexicographie  et  Confection des Dictionnaires au Gabon,  Sun Media, Stellenbosch.