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I’m currently reading a book on translation called Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. It’s really about philosophies of language, although it’s a fun and fairly accessible book, so don’t let that put you off.

At any rate, he points out a rather key difference in the way Europeans and Chinese have approached the making of dictionaries, and by extension, the purpose of language and whole lot of much bigger cultural implications.

In the West (including in the Fertile Crescent in ancient times), the first dictionaries were bi- or multilingual. There was, however, a glossary written in Greece by Philitas of Cos in the 4th century BCE that gave definitions for ancient terms from Homer and other literary works. Otherwise, other than a 9th c. AD etymological dictionary of Irish (written in a mix of Irish and Latin), dictionaries existed in the West for two reasons: maintaining the accessibility of Latin as vernacular languages became increasingly distant from it, and to support trade. Truth be told, even the Latin dictionaries were really as much to support trade and inter-European diplomatic relations as anything more literary or metaphysical, since Latin was the language in which most contracts, treaties and other official documents were written until the Renaissance.

The bilingual vernacular dictionaries are interesting time capsules in their own right. There’s a fascinating commercial phrasebook from the late 1400’s in the British Museum. From memory–I was 14 when I saw it, which says something about the impression it made–it contains various phrases useful for traveling merchants, with the English on the left, and then corresponding columns for Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic (written using the Latin alphabet, following English phonetic conventions). Most are the same phrases you’d find in any tourist phrasebook today (numbers, please, thank you, where is the bank of….), while others have to do with negotiating customs and particular types of financial instruments in use at the time.

Meanwhile, Chinese dictionaries reveal entirely different preoccupations. The Chinese like to say they have 5000 years of recorded history. The first 1000 might be questionable as factual history, but linguistically, Chinese is probably the oldest unbroken written tradition in the world. While meanings have evolved and a modern person needs some training to read classical Chinese easily, the actual writing system, including the ancient “seal” script, was standardized in the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), and has remained in continual usage. Calligraphy, including the seal-script style, is still a fairly popular art form, and seal script is also a commonly available choice for modern name chops.

Chinese script evolution

The reason for this is the longstanding Chinese reverence for ancient texts, and the earliest dictionaries, from at least the 3rd century BCE, are lists of still older forms of Chinese characters with their then-modern equivalents. Confucius, living in the same period, makes multiple references to earlier histories as illustrative examples, and the civil service exam system started in the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220AD) was based on knowledge and analysis of Confucian and earlier classics.

There are actually two words for “dictionary” in Chinese: zìdiǎn and cídiǎn. Zì specifically means a written character, while cí refers more generally to oral language. Most modern Chinese dictionaries are cídiǎn, but traditionally they were zìdiǎn, because the purpose was maintaining access and continuity of the classical written tradition for people seeking to gain access to the civil service. There are some similarities with the medieval Latin dictionaries in terms of purpose, but the Chinese works are not so much about translating meaning–the same character is used for a given word across all Chinese languages–as they are about documenting changes in the graphical form.

Chinese has an extremely rich vocabulary, with a multiplicity of similar words providing very fine shades of meaning. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the first Chinese dictionaries were organized semantically: that is, they’re about elucidating the differences between similar words relating to a given topic (“On Trees”, for example). The second type, beginnning in the 2nd c. AD, provides a means of looking up a word based on how it’s written, usually with characters using the smallest number of brush strokes coming first. This is somewhat similar to the Western scheme of organizing by alphabetical order, except that stroke count has nothing to do with how a word sounds. In the 7th c AD, some books were organized by rhyming schemes–but these were to support the writing of poetry, a highly valued talent in literati circles; they presumed you already knew the meanings of the words. In short, for most of Chinese history, dictionaries were by and for educated people expanding their knowledge of an already ancient written language, not for explaining the meanings of words. (Side note: early Arabic dictionaries also used the latter two systems, despite it being a basically alphabetic script.)

There’s a profound nationalism about language inherent in the traditional Chinese approach–one that the West only caught up with in the Renaissance. This is when the first monolingual dictionaries appeared in Europe. The first monolingual dictionary was published in Italy in 1502–in Latin. The first vernacular dictionary was Spanish, published in 1611. Curiously, since Italy was then not a unified country nor one with a truly common language, an Italian vocabulary followed in 1612. French and English dictionaries followed. These all were symptoms of the consolidating nation-states of Europe–ones that used newly standardizing languages as markers of nationality, and as a means of creating a sense of national unity.

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In case you’re curious how modern Chinese dictionaries are organized: they generally follow a hybrid system of stroke count (which is how you look up a word if you don’t know how it sounds) and alphabetization using whatever romanization system has been adopted by the place printing the dictionary (Wade-Giles in Taiwan, pinyin in mainland China). But because of the synonym-richness I alluded to earlier, there are also conceptually organized dictionaries that are more or less etymologically based. I have a bilingual one, which works like this:


The basic element, or radical, is defined–here it’s bao, to envelop something. Put it together with other radicals, and you start to see how different characters came to mean different things. For example, the bao radical with a sitting person means embryo, or metaphorically, something encased inside something else. Put that character together with the radical for food (middle of the left column of the right page), and you get the word for full, as in “stuffed with food”. With the radical for water (middle column), you get something surrounded by water, or soaked. And so on.