Thesaurus celebrates connectedness of language


By Sarita Blignaut and Karien Brits

The thesaurus is a special kind of dictionary whose value is celebrated annually on Thesaurus Day (18 January), precisely because Peter Mark Roget, lexicographer and father of the thesaurus, was born on this day. His Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases first saw the light in 1852.

Language jokes are often made with the word “thesaurus” which evokes a picture of a kind of dinosaur that devours words. Fortunately, a thesaurus is not an extinct animal – in fact, it is still young and very much alive.

The word “thesaurus” means storehouse or treasure in Greek. Before 1852, the word “thesaurus” generally referred to dictionaries, but it now refers to those dictionaries that focus on the relationship that exists between words.

In connection with Akademia’s annual theme of connectedness, it may make sense to also reflect on the connection of ideas and concepts. Among other things, we use language as a tool to express the connectedness between each other and our community, and we want to do this as nuanced as possible. For that we need the right language tools, an NP van Wyk Louw chisel.

In Afrikaans’ language toolbox there is, for example, the Thesaurus of Afrikaans by Leon and Amanda de Stadler and the Synonyms and related words– guide prepared by the Bureau of the Dictionary of the Afrikaans Language (WAT). These sources guide the user to find the right word in each context. The advantage of this is that not only are synonyms given for the search word, but also other words that are otherwise related to each other, e.g. connectedness, relationship, coherence, interweaving, bound together, take part in, get involved.

In the digital age, there is also expansion to yet another reference source, a word net (based on WordNet), a lexical database that indicates the connections between words. This database differs from a traditional dictionary, because the purpose of a dictionary is mainly to explain and translate words. In contrast, a word net is mainly used for research purposes and natural language processing (natural language processing) used. It consists of synonym sets (also known as synsets) which refers to a group of synonyms (in the same word class) that together represent one context, e.g. “car” (specific word) is a type of “vehicle” (general word). Definitions, example sentences and domain labels (eg philosophy) are provided in a synonym set.

The connectedness in and through language is more than just a philosophical reflection. It connects people and binds communities together. Lexicographers and language practitioners work together to make these language tools available to language communities, but it is in the hands of the speakers of these communities to use them.

  • Sarita Blignaut and Karien Brits are language practitioners at Akademia.