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03 September 2004 @ 11:49

dictionary (n.)

A few days ago, I stopped by the McGill University bookstore (since I happened to be in the neighbourhood and was looking—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—for a calendar for the year 5765), and I noticed that they had, prominently displayed in the front of the store, a new dictionary, viz. the Collins Canadian English Dictionary & Thesaurus. Having some interest in dictionaries, especially Canadian ones (my name—I mean my real name, not Q. Pheevr—can be found on page xii of the ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary of the English Language), I picked it up and had a look inside. It looked a great deal like any other Collins dictionary, which seemed like a good thing, because I've found that the people at Collins are particularly adept at writing clear and helpful definitions of arcane terms denoting mathematical and spatial configurations of things.

Then I had a look at the pronunciations, and I realized that this new "Canadian" dictionary looked way too much like any other Collins dictionary.

For one thing, most of the words whose spelling ended with -er or -re seemed to have pronunciations ending with /ə/. And the word hockey had in its first syllable a vowel /ɒ/ which does not exist in most Canadian varieties of English, and ended with a vowel /ɪ/ that does not occur at the end of any Canadian word. And the diphthong in words like boat was transcribed as /əʊ/, which is really more like the diphthong most Canadian English speakers have in the second syllable of the word about.

What really struck me was that the dictionary included a word whose pronunciation it gave as /həʊzə/. There is no such word. There is, in Canadian English, a word hoser, pronounced approximately /howzɚ/ (for the definitive pronunciation, consult Messrs. Robert and Douglas McKenzie, pictured at right), which is defined by the Nelson Canadian Dictionary as 'a gullible, uncouth, beer-drinking person, esp. a man.' (Collins defines /həʊzə/ as 'a gauche or uncouth person.') This is not too far off, though the precise meaning is hard to pin down; I'd define hoser as 'the Canajun word for eejit,' which arguably begs the question.

The thing is, if you pronounce it /həʊzə/, then you're speaking RP or something similar, and the word hoser simply does not belong to your dialect. The only thing /həʊzə/ could possibly mean is 'one that hoses,' and if it means that, then you don't need to put it in the dictionary, because it's perfectly transparent. In short, what Collins has produced is not a dictionary of Canadian English, but rather a dictionary of what might be the idiolect of a well-educated Sassenach who has spent a few years in Toronto. I guess it might make an interesting conversation piece, but wouldn't a real Canadian English dictionary, or a real English English one, be more generally useful? Geez, what a bunch of hosers, eh?

hoser (n.)

Tishiewahooweena on 4. September, 2004 17:00 (UTC)
All of the symbols you are using to indicate certain sounds look like small squares to me. Is there something I need to download?
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 5. September, 2004 11:30 (UTC)

They're various IPA symbols encoded in Unicode. For them to show up properly, you need both a Unicode-encoded font that includes IPA characters and a web browser that is capable of displaying Unicode-encoded characters. I'm not sure exactly what to recommend, but here's a potentially helpful list of Unicode IPA fonts.

The main problem with Unicode is that it really doesn't degrade very nicely—if you've got the right font and the right browser, it looks great; if you don't, then all the characters look the same. The only exception to this seems to be Lynx, which actually displays sensible substitutions for characters it doesn't have.

鉄観音: mehisolt on 5. September, 2004 18:51 (UTC)
Last I checked, Canadian English isn't r-less. What are they thinking?
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 6. September, 2004 09:25 (UTC)

If they were thinking at all, they were probably thinking that they could get away with passing off a British dictionary as a Canadian one without changing any of the pronunciations.

The Nelson is also an adaptation—it's based on the American Heritage Dictionary—but the pronunciations were revised to reflect Canadian rather than American English. This was the right thing to do, but it caused a few problems. For instance, (most) Canadian varieties of English have the same vowel sound in pot and father, which were transcribed in the AHD with ŏ (o with a breve) and ä, respectively. (Why neither the AHD nor the Nelson uses IPA is a whole nother rant.) So, in the Nelson, these two were collapsed into ŏ. This caused two problems, one inherent and one that arose through sloppy implementation:

  1. The ŏ looks very odd in transcriptions of words that have the father vowel before r. Transcribing park as "pŏrk" makes it look to the casual reader as if it were supposed to be homophonous with pork. (The less casual reader will note that pork is transcribed as "pôrk," where ô stands for IPA /ɔ/.)
  2. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to implement this merger through a global search-and-replace on the computer. Unfortunately, not all instances of ä were in pronunciations. If you have a copy of the first edition of the Nelson, you can see that, for example, the artist Käthe Kollwitz is referred to as "Kŏthe." (This has been corrected in subsequent editions.)