A while back I blogged about the wonderful world of Larousse encyclopedic dictionaries. As I continued to delve into the world of French dictionaries I discovered, or rather rediscovered, Larousse’s main competitor, the house of Robert. I now recall seeing the Petit Robert dictionary on the desks of some of my French Immersion teachers, with it’s plain white covers and dense text—not too appealing to a young person. Larousse has traditionally geared itself towards children and families, with lots of colourful illustrations, and both common and proper nouns in the same volume, though in separate sections. Robert, on the other hand, is a more technical dictionary in two volumes (common and proper nouns separated), with more etymology and more extensive definitions, suited to the older student, professional, or translator.
Though Larousse is certainly progressive, Robert has traditionally been thought of as the more modern and up-to-date of the two publishers, and their most recent dictionaries live up to that reputation. First is the Dixel, their new annual illustrated encyclopedic dictionary (see sample pages here). It might seem to be in direct competition with the Petit Larousse but it does have some significant differences. First of all, common and proper nouns are listed together, with differently coloured headwords to distinguish them. This enables the reader to get a more complete appreciation of how a word is used without having to look it up twice. The publishers also tried to make the illustrations and sidebars relevant to today’s world. For example, instead of a generic spread on the world’s mammals, they have one on endangered species. The Dixel also uses photographs of famous people doing what they were famous for, instead of just a head shot. It’s a subtle difference but it reflects a philosophy of making knowledge active and connected to reality.
A far more significant publication is the Dictionnaire culturel en langue française (see sample pages here). This unique and monumental work is the brainchild of Alain Rey, who also edited the Dixel. It is not merely a dictionary, but a cultural dictionary, which means that in addition to giving you the technical meanings of words, it also strives to give a sense of their cultural connotations and symbolism. It’s an embodiment of the interconnection of language and culture—what words mean, to a particular people, is connected to their ideas and cultural expressions. Consequently, the Dictionnaire culturel includes quotations showing the use of words in a beautiful, literary way, not just a catalogue of historical uses in any form as in the Oxford English Dictionary. Furthermore, it does not explain the cultural significance of words in French or European culture only, but in other cultures as well, and throughout human history. As a final touch, the 9,600-page, 4-volume set is enclosed by a Plexiglas box, which is meant to signify clarity of understanding and letting the reader make of their language what they will. Fabulous, non?
Alain Rey’s philosophy is that a proper knowledge of language is fundamental to any kind of work. This connection between language and what people do is what makes his dictionaries different. Dictionaries have a tendency to handle language as though in a historical vacuum, which is understandable for reference books that are intended for years, if not decades of use. But with annual dictionaries like the Petit Larousse and Dixel, and even the Dictionnaire culturel, there is more liberty to connect language with its cultural context, and thereby to bring language closer to the real life of today. I for one am very excited by this, and hope this passion for correct, creative, living, and working language catches on in the English-speaking world. Bravo, M. Rey.
Rencontre avec Alain Rey (YouTube)