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

[Abstract:] Tarp, Sven: Do we need a (new) theory of lexicography?

Lexicography is in the middle of an important transition from printed to electronic dictionaries. In this process the question has been raised whether we need a new theory that may guide the conception and production of lexicographical e-tools or if we can use the theories already developed in the era of printed works. In order to answer this question it is first of all necessary to give answer to the question whether a lexicographical theory exists, is possible at all or even wanted. In fact, the very concept of theory is widely disputed within lexicographical circles (cf. Tarp 2010). In a recent publication where he discusses the theory of lexicographical functions, Yukio Tono (2010) asks: “Do we really need a ‘theory’?” Tono’s final answer to his own question is affirmative. At a high level of abstraction, i.e. independent of the specific theory in question, this view is shared by the Russian tradition (cf. Sorokoletov 1978), by Wiegand (1989), the function theory (cf. Tarp 2008), and at least part of a Chinese tradition (Yong & Peng 2008), among others. However, other lexicographers, especially those belonging to the Anglo-Saxon tradition, do not support this vision of lexicography. For instance, Sue Atkins and Michael Rundell (2008) “do not believe that such a thing exists” (i.e. a theory of lexicography). And in a recent book, Henri Bejoint writes:

“I simply do not believe that there exists a theory of lexicography, and I very much doubt that there can be one. Those who have proposed a general theory have not been found convincing by the community, and for good reasons. A theory is a system of ideas put forward to explain phenomena that are not otherwise explainable. A science has a theory, a craft does not. All natural phenomena need a theory, but how can there be a theory of the production of artefacts? There are theories of language, there may be theories of lexicology, but there is no theory of lexicography. Lexicography is about all a craft, the craft of preparing dictionaries, as well as an art, as Landau (2001) says. It may be becoming more scientific, but it has not become a science.” (Henri Bejoint 2010)

The paper will argue that this point of view is strongly embedded in an Anglo-Saxon academic tradition according to which science is only related to natural phenomena and where all other phenomena are referred to the sphere of art and craft. As mentioned, this tradition is widely opposed by the traditions in other parts of the world. For instance, Sorokoletov more than 30 years ago defined lexicography as “the science of the classification processes of word material and its presentation in dictionaries.”

The paper accepts the idea that a craft is neither a science nor a theory, but it argues that, based upon a meticulous study of the corresponding cultural practice, it is both necessary and perfectly possible to make reflections and little by little systemize them into a organized set of ideas or statements, i.e. a theory capable of explaining, guiding and even renovating the existing practice. This was what Scerba (1940) intended to do in his ground-breaking contribution to lexicography, what Wiegand did with his “general theory of lexicography”, and what has been done with the “theory of lexicographical functions”. It may be that these theories “have not been found convincing” by the Anglo-Saxon lexicographical community, but this does not mean that they do not exist, are not possible and even highly needed by those who try to solve the complex problems within present-day lexicography.

Departing from the fact that lexicographical works are multi-faceted cultural artefacts and utility tools which, during the millenniums, have met a wide range of different needs detected in society and cov­ered almost all spheres of human activity and knowledge, the paper will defend the idea that a theory of lexicography should not focus on the differences regarding the specific content of all these works, but on aspects that unite them and are common to all of them. In this regard, some of lexicography’s core characteristics will be discussed together with its complex relation to other disciplines, especially the information science with which it seems to have many things in common. As a conclusion, the paper will make a call for the urgent need to renew existing lexicographical theories in order to assist the present transition from printed to electronic dictionaries.


Atkins, B.T. Sue and Michael Rundell 2008: The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bejoint, Henri 2010: The lexicography of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scerba, L.V. 1940: Towards a General Theory of Lexicography. International Journal of Lexicography. Volume 8. Number 4, 1995, 315-350.

Sorokoletov, F.P. 1978: Traditionen der sowjetrussischen Lexikographie. In Werner Wolski, Werner (ed.): Aspekte der sowjetrussischen Lexikcographie. Übersetzungen, Abstracts, bibliographische Angaben. Tübingen: Niemeyer 1982, 63-88.

Tarp, Sven 2008: Lexicography in the Borderland between Knowledge and Non-knowledge. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Tarp, Sven 2010: Reflections on the Academic Status of Lexicography. Lexikos 20, 450-465.

Tono, Yukio 2010: A Critical Review of the Theory of Lexicographical Functions. Lexicon 40, 1-16.

Wiegand, Herbert Ernst 1989: Der gegenwärtige Status des Lexikographie und ihr Verhältnis zu anderen Disziplinen. In Franz Josef Hausmann, Oskar Reichmann, Herbert Ernst Wiegand and Ladislav Zgusta (Eds.): Wörterbücher. Ein internationales Handbuch zur Lexikographie. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 246-280.

Yong, Heming and Jing Peng 2008: Chinese Lexicography. A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911. Oxford: Oxford University Press.