The Dangerous Digital Methods. A Conference Report.

“Neues Rathaus” in Leipzig on a beautiful conference day.

As I had hoped the conference on words in Leipzig considered this fascinating object of study in all possible lights and from many different points of view. It facilitated debates on principles as well as provided practical suggestions that I will now be able to consider for my own project.

To me what was most noticeable was that even with the very diverse presentations and audience one major concern seemed to stand out, irrespective of specific fields of study, projects, diachronic or synchronic approaches. It was the general awareness that the new digital methods have a tendency to lead scholars and users to believe that digital projects could be forever up to date, that there is always more useful information to be added, a new layer to be put on, a new exciting web service to be hyperlinked, or another innovative display method to be used which will make access to the data easier. All of this is of course valid and true. However, consent was reached that constantly reworking a project to try and keep it up to date is both a dangerous and a futile attempt. Dangerous because as tempting as it is, a project’s resources don’t usually allow for unlimited fundamental changes, and constantly starting all over again carries the risk of never getting finished. And futile because even the most innovative project will sooner or later become outdated, if its content and methods are not constantly kept up to date, but projects are not usually laid out and equipped for this kind of long term maintenance.

Today, working digitally no longer requires justification. However, a wise, pragmatic, and sensible use of resources and digital methods is essential, and the lively discussions provided many good arguments for how, and when, and why to prioritise one aspect over the other.

Luckily, the presentations did not only raise problems and pose questions, they also provided answers. For example, Frank Michaelis and Dominik Brückner made some very interesting, field-tested suggestions for the implementation and user-friendly presentation of long lists of references in online dictionaries, and how to generally improve the layout and accessibility of dictionary entries by means of pop-ups, mouse-over functions, graphs, and visual aids.

This, however, raised another question that lexicographers in particular face: who is the target user? Is it a non-professional user or a fellow lexicography scholar? The answer to this question sets the boundaries regarding the extent to which new and possibly unusual digital aids should be used. Because the more the presentation differs from the usual layout and functions of a (printed) dictionary, the less intuitive the service is to use. Visual aids in particular carry an extended risk of being misinterpreted by the user. It was argued that with a reliable web service this is what the preface is for, and that all important information on the corpus and the methods can be found there. But do users without an in-depth lexicographic interest actually read the preface for every web service they use?

In addition to these debates and questions on principles the conference also provided some very helpful, concrete and relevant suggestions for my own project. For example, Lisa Dücker and Renata Szczepaniak advocated the theory that spontaneous scripturality and variation are correlated. But what exactly counts as spontaneous? Were the records of witch trials, that make up their corpus, spontaneous scripturality? Quoted arguments were the level of editing, formalisation, and planning, and evidence of pressure of time. How does this relate to a dictated dictionary? A question I will surely address in my thesis.

They also provided a very useful method to decide between compound and separate spelling of German words. The simple solution taken, I think, from Paul Sänger: in cases of doubt compound spelling is assumed if the letters touch. This seems like a good, objective, easily applicable criterion. On second glance, though, it turns out there are some letters which just cannot usually be written together, such as z and p. Nevertheless, I will take this method into consideration, and assess its uses for my edition.

And on a final note, as it tends to be, the conversations between presentations proved to be a most valuable source for exciting insights and a refreshing exchange of ideas. It also proved that asking simple questions can save a lot of time consuming research: A few days before the conference I came across the polysemous entry canis in Engelhus’ dictionary, with the polysemy being expressed in a mnemonic: “latrat in ede canis nat in equore fulget in astris” (the dog barks in the house, swims in the sea, sparkles in the stars). The first dog, of course, is the pet and the third is the constellation, but what about the second? A Hund (dog) that swims in the See (sea), could that be a Seehund (seal)? Knowing that both medieval descriptions of animals and literal translations can be tricky, I was wary. Could it really be that simple? After an inspiring talk with Robert Damme, the expert on Engelhus’ dictionary, I now know that yes, sometimes it can be that simple.

Conference: Wörter. Wortbildung, Lexikologie und Lexikographie, Etymologie. (22.-24.09.2016)


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