The dyslexicographer

Margaret Marks at Translation Blawg rightly wonders what on earth the Webster’s Online Dictionary (WOD) is all about. Although there is quite a lot of background information available on the site, I decided to find out from its creator Phil Parker. Here’s the score.

A Professor at Marketing at INSEAD, the European business school, Philip Parker was born dyslexic. This meant he found reading dictionaries – lists of words and their definitions – much easier than sustained prose, which demanded too much time to decipher. So over the past 30 years he has been collecting dictionaries of all kinds. Around the year 2000, large dictionaries on the web started charging for ‘premium’ words of the sort he needed in his research and that really “pissed him off”. So he decided to leverage the definitions he had collected from his own store, borrowed the out-of-copyright ‘Webster’ badge, and started building WOD, which he intends to make the biggest multilingual dictionary site on the web.

He was lucky since he had loads of help from academic and other assistants, benefited from donations of out of print dictionaries and word lists, and was able to finance the whole thing himself. He even uses a firm in Togo to keyboard in content. This summer he hopes to upgrade the site to feature dictionaries covering 600 languages (10% of the world’s current language population), and in the case of existing site languages such as Spanish, he hopes to increase the entry count from around 100,000 to 600,000 entries.

To give global coverage he is working in a sequences of passes. The first pass was to work by time zones, taking a location such as Europe and collecting dictionary materials for all ‘major’ languages. The second pass, now under way, is to include ‘secondary’ languages (say Maltese in Europe). Next year, he plans to start the third pass by incorporating locally endangered languages, using volunteer help where necessary. One technique is this: he donates a computer and a small stipend to missionary children (e.g. for Tarahumara in Mexico) who then create a local language/English dictionary.

What’s next, once he’s got all these bilingual word lists? Create a total lexical linker, whereby you can click from any word to its equivalent in any other language, using English as the underlying pivot language. An “N-dimensional cube of words in every language to every language,” as he puts it, that will by this summer be the world’s largest compilation of language items ever produced. His content currently weighs in at around one terabyte.

How useful is Phil’s site proving? He reckons it is among the top ten sites used to search Arabic words in Arabic script, since the whole hoard has been programmed for Unicode. And because the Webster word is a synonym for ‘dictionary’ for Americans (as Kodak once was for cameras or Google is for search engines) WOD ranks between 5 and 7 on, well, Google for ‘Webster’ out of about 150 ‘Webster’ sites on the web these days. Probably the best way to appreciate the ambition of Phil Parker’s site is to search the term Webster itself, and see the degree of encyclopedic potential – words, images, statistical findings from corpora, sign language versions, et alia multa – that he is trying to pack into what he calls a hobby. But the definitions don’t include a more recent decomposition – web + ster (as in napster) – a linguistic peer to peer resource.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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