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

[Abstract:] Swanepoel, P.H.: Meaning explanation in learner’s e-dictionaries: Current strategies and their theoretical, functional, user and practical motivation

In arguing for the inclusion of double-decker definitions in electronic monolingual learner‘s dictionaries, Fillmore (2003) makes the general remark that the new generation of e-dictionaries provides lexicographers with enormous space for meaning explanations but that developments in lexical semantics do not spell out what is to be included in these vast spaces and why.

Theoretical considerations and space are, however, not the only variables that have to be taken into account to optimise the efficacy of meaning explanations in learner’s e-dictionaries.  The main goal of this paper is to indicate  how a number of theoretical, functional, user and practical variables determine how lexicographers design  meaning explanations in  a corpus of learner’s e-dictionaries and how they utilise the three major advantages of electronic platforms (Internet, CDRoms) to do so: space (increases on the mega-, macro- and micro-level), hypertextuality (linking), and multimodality.

Understanding the meaning of a lexical item is crucial to a number of the functions that learner’s dictionaries are used for, which underscores the need to optimise the comprehensibility of meaning explanations. Learners differ, however, in their knowledge of an L2/L3, and thus in their ability to comprehend meaning explanations, and they also differ  in their ability to use e- dictionaries optimally. Consequently, lexicographers have to take these variables into account in designing meaning explanations, as well as the limitations imposed by practical considerations (e.g., the possibilities of the platform, medium, costs, etc). 

Although not always spelt out, lexicographers currently rely on a number of lexical semantic theories in explaining the meaning of lexical items in learner’s e-dictionaries. Besides the use of  genus and differentia definitions,  inclusion of numerous types of sense relations identified in structural semantics (synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy, hyperonymy, meronymy, etc.- both as definition types and as information separate from genus et differentia definitions, plus linking to thesauri) have become a standard part of the meaning explanations.  Cognitive semantics with its focus on categorization and category structure has motivated the inclusion of information on prototype meaning, basic level categorization, and inclusion of more systematic (category internal) information on metaphoric and metonymic sense extensions. Frame semantics forms the theoretical basis for linking meaning explanations to larger dictionary internal encyclopaedic knowledge structures (frames of all kinds), to more encompassing entries in encyclopaedias, and to illustrations, and to an exponential growth in the number of contextualised senses discerned for lexical items.  Barselou’s kind of multimodal semantics and other frameworks which stress the situatedness and embodiment of meaning open up new venues to maximise the explanatory strategies provided by the Internet and data basis technologies although these possibilities have not been utilised to a great extent.

The paper concludes with a number of recommendations for further research.



Fillmore, C. 2003. Double-decker Definitions: The Role of Frames in Meaning Explanations. Sign Language Studies, 3(3): 263-295.