Ngā Papakupu – Choosing Dictionaries

I don’t know if you like dictionaries (ngā papakupu), but I’ve always found them rather interesting. I used to like just browsing through my English dictionary sometimes, and I often had it near me to look up words when reading – I read a lot of science fiction and science fiction authors tend to have large vocabularies, and they usually have an extensive general knowledge too, so my favourite dictionary was one with “encyclopedic entries” which gave brief details on famous people and places.

As I have progressed through my Māori language learning I’ve bought myself various Māori dictionaries, some out of necessity and some as rewards for completing a year of study. Before studying Māori, I thought that all dictionaries were basically created equal, and I recognised only a few obvious differences. But since then I’ve  discovered that there is a lot more to them than that.

If you are buying a dictionary, these obvious differences are the easiest to consider, and these considerations are relevant when buying a dictionary of any language (including your native language):

  • Size – both physical size and number of words
  • Bilingual or monolingual
    • Is it bilingual in both directions or just one – e.g. is it Māori-English only, or is it Māori-English and English-Māori
  • Example sentences showing how the word is used – does it have them and are they translated
  • Parts of speech – does it tell you the part of speech (noun, intransitive verb, etc)

The following considerations are only relevant for some languages, such as Māori and likely other indigenous languages; they also require a bit more knowledge about the language as a whole, its history and its current status:

  • Loan words – does it contain words introduced into the language from other languages, such as English
  • Age of dictionary content – although all languages are constantly changing, a recently published dictionary is more important for some languages than for others
  • Source of corpus – what was the original source of the words used to create the dictionary

If you don’t know what dictionary to buy, just pick whichever one you like the look of, or whatever someone else recommends. Once you start using the dictionary you will discover what you like and dislike about it, guiding your decision for your next purchase. Borrowing a dictionary from a friend or the library might work too.

I will write a review of each of my Māori dictionaries, hopefully including some of the more subtle points, and post them here when they are done.


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