What are types of dictionaries?

As we saw in the section defining the dictionary, dictionaries are limited in their purpose and scope. The first relevant distinction is between a general and a special (= speciali

What are types of dictionaries?

As we saw in the section defining the dictionary, dictionaries are limited in their purpose and scope. The first relevant distinction is between a general and a special (= specialized) dictionary. The general dictionary comes closer to the ideal dictionary (the one that represents the whole lexicon). The data that it is based on commonly take the form of a general-purpose corpus. Its most general functions are the following:

  • The dictionary provides information on parts and aspects of the lexicon of one language. This is a monolingual dictionary.
  • The dictionary provides help in translating between languages. This is a pluri- (mostly, a bi-)lingual dictionary.

On the other hand, the functions of a dictionary may be distinguished according to the role or perspective of the user:

  • If he is in the role of speaker or writer, he is taking the onomasiological perspective.
  • If he is in the role of hearer or reader, he is taking the semasiological perspective.

The distinction between a semasiological and an onomasiological dictionary will come up repeatedly. Here it suffices to note that what is commonly understood by a general (monolingual) dictionary (e.g. Soanes & Hawker (eds.) 2005) is a semasiological dictionary; onomasiological dictionaries are commonly seen as something special.

Let L1 be the user language and L2 be the foreign language. Then the functions of a bilingual dictionary can be related to the activities of the speaker and of the hearer as follows:Basic functions of general dictionarieslanguagespeech productionunderstandingL1monolingual onomasiologicalmonolingual semasiologicalL2L1  L2L2  L1

Both mono- and bilingual dictionaries may be specifically designed for language learners, serving in first and second language learning and teaching; or they may be non-specific as to such goals.

Like a grammar, a dictionary may try to represent the norm of a language. It may then fulfill a function in language standardization and language policy. It may also help consolidate the cultural unity of a community.

The question of the functions of dictionaries is partly an empirical one. The functions that dictionaries actually fulfill for their users are the object of a user analysis. Relevant variables include

  • for general dictionaries: competence in the language(s) of the dictionary,
  • for special dictionaries: encyclopedic competence in their object domain.

The user's demands on a dictionary are in a principled conflict with the requirements of systematicity, in the following sense:

  • The user's competence in a language always has a core and a periphery, in the sense that he is sure about the core, but uneasy or even ignorant about the periphery. Consequently, he needs the dictionary for information on the periphery; he does not care for any information it might contain on the core.
  • A dictionary tries to be systematic in reflecting the structure of the lexicon as a component of a language system. What is the core of the language system should also figure prominently in the description. Many descriptions neglect the periphery.

An ad hoc solution of the dilemma that only answers the user's needs is a dictionary of hard words (or for German the Duden der Zweifelsfälle). A solution that would be satisfactory from the linguistic point of view would require a complete dictionary.

Incidentally, the very same kind of problem exists for the grammar. Especially traditional grammars tend to neglect those patterns and rules that go by themselves and concentrate on those that present problems for the user.


Hausmann 1977, ch. 1

Since a dictionary only represents an aspect of a lexicon for a certain purpose, dictionaries differ along a large number of parameters. Some of the more important ones are the following:

Number of languages

  1. Monolingual lexicon (definition dictionary)
  2. Bilingual dictionary (equivalence dictionary)
  3. Multilingual dictionary (e.g., a multilingual terminological glossary)

Scope of the speech community

  1. general dictionary
  2. dialect dictionary
  3. sociolect dictionary (e.g. colloquial language, adolescent language ...)
  4. individual dictionary (e.g. dictionary of Cicero's or Chaucer's language)
  5. technical (terminological) dictionary (German Fachsprachenwörterbuch)

Aspects of linguistic structure

  1. Aspects of the linguistic sign
  2. orthographic dictionary: (correct) spelling of words
  3. pronunciation dictionary: (correct) pronunciation of words
  4. frequency dictionary: textual frequencies of words
  5. etymological dictionary: origin of words
  6. Syntagmatic complexity (syntagmatic dictionary)
  7. constructions dictionary: valency dictionary
  8. collocations dictionary
  9. phraseological dictionary: phrases, idioms, familiar sayings
  10. proverb dictionary
  11. citations dictionary
  12. morphemicon: morpheme inventory

Direction of access to the linguistic sign

  1. onomasiological dictionary
  2. thesaurus (German Wörterbuch nach Sachgruppen)
  3. dictionary of synonyms
  4. picture dictionary
  5. semasiological dictionary
  6. dictionary of word families (German Wortkunde)
  7. retrograde dictionary
  8. rhyme dictionary

Segment of the vocabulary

  1. dictionary of neologisms,
  2. loan-word/foreign-word dictionary
  3. dictionary of jargon/slang
  4. insult dictionary (German Schimpfwörterbuch)
  5. name dictionary (onomastic dictionary): first names, last names, toponyms ...
  6. encyclopedia of a special domain (e.g. of birds)

Group of users

  1. general dictionary
  2. language learner's dictionary
  3. first language learner's dictionary (children's dictionary)
  4. second language learner's dictionary


Hausmann 1985, §4

The most common kind of dictionary is one that is devoted to the vocabulary of one language. Its macrostructure is an alphabetical list of vocables. Its microstructure comprises various kinds of linguistic information on each vocable. Apart from the word-list, the typical dictionary contains a couple of other components, e.g. instructions for use and a list of abbreviations. This kind of dictionary is called the general monolingual dictionary.

The other kinds of dictionary enumerated above differ more or less crucially from the general monolingual dictionary. However, much of what is said about this dictionary type also applies to others, in particular to the general bilingual dictionary.

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