Pardon my stating the obvious, but dictionaries must remain closed books to people of any age who can’t read. Children learn to speak instinctively, and if they’re bilingual they start to translate at the same time; but they have to be taught to read and many of them are never taught. In developed societies, they typically learn to read around the age of five or six; but bilingual children as young as three can translate orally.
However, there’s much more to it than just reading. Traditionally, the words described in dictionaries of languages with alphabetical writing systems are listed in alphabetical order. The invention of alphabets was of course crucial in the development of Western culture; but the subsidiary invention of conventional alphabetical orderings was also very important. It assumes mastery of the order for each language, which may vary even between languages using the Roman alphabet. Traditional Spanish dictionaries, for instance, use an extra letter (ñ) and count ll and ch as digraphs (combined letters); so a Spanish/English bilingual must learn one and a half alphabets.
Even alphabetic writing systems can be very complicated for dictionary use. Arabic dictionaries, for example, are ordered according to the three, sometimes four, radicals (basic consonants) of a word. Thus, to find the meaning or translation of sytkllmw (they will speak) (the vowels are usually not written in Arabic), one has to be able to recognise and abstract the radicals k-l-m, which, as it happens, are in alphabetical order but in other words they may not be. Recognising the radicals in a word form that is declined (like sytkllmw) requires a good knowledge of Arabic morphology. It took me a year to get to an efficient level of speed and accuracy .
And then there are the non-alphabetic languages, most notably the character based ones like Chinese, for which, in traditional dictionaries, we must know how the characters are built up from their component pen or brush strokes because that’s how the characters are ordered.
Equipped with the above, a primary school bilingual child may be able to find a word in a simple bilingual dictionary. But finding and decoding the information within each entry takes us to another level of complexity.
The highly developed structure of hard-copy dictionary entries for translators hasn’t changed much since the turn of the 20th century. To decode it, one also needs to know part at least of a long list of special abbreviations. However, the first bilingual dictionaries were simple lists of equivalences, and they were very hard copy indeed: baked clay. The writing system was cuneiform and the languages were Sumerian and Eblaite (a Semitic language forming a subgroup with Akkadian). A large library containing such tablets was excavated at Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh), in Syria, from 1974 onwards (see photo).
The tradition of alphabetical listing runs deep. Giovanni Pettinato, the epigrapher to the Tell Mardikh archaeological expedition, wrote (my emphasis):
Among the various lexical texts, a prominent position is occupied by the syllabaries for learning Sumerian, grammatical texts with verbal paradigms, and finally bilingual vocabularies properly speaking in Sumerian and Eblaite, the first such bilingual ones in history. This is perhaps the finest expression of the cultural maturity of Ebla, which has presented us with some works that are the equal of modern culture. Who would ever have dreamed that back in 2500BC Syrian teachers and students passed their time in classrooms compiling vocabularies that Italians would find 4500 years later? I still remember the fateful moment on that sunny afternoon of 4 October 1975 when with vivid emotion I could announce to my archeological colleagues that tablet TM.75[= Tell Mardikh 1975]G.2000 was a bilingual vocabulary. Thus Ebla was not only an economic power but a center of culture as well!
What impressed us in these bilingual vocabularies was the modernity of their layout. Today vocabularies follow the alphabetical principle; at Ebla a similar principle was adopted. Above mention was made of lists whose words are arranged according to acrographic criteria [i.e., according to their initial cuneiform sign]; the vocabularies show the same structure inasmuch as they contain... different sections set off from one another by their initial elements.
There are at least 32 bilingual vocabularies having each Sumerian word translated into Eblaite. One superb example (with 18 duplicate copies!) contains 1,000 words in both languages ― “an inestimable treasure for scholars today, as it was handy for scribes in antiquity,” says Kitchen.
Moreover, there is another basic principle of dictionary and terminology classification already evidenced at Ebla. It's thematic grouping, i.e. grouping by subject field. There are “long classified lists of the Sumerian words for animals, birds, fishes, terms for professions, types of personal names, geographical names (‘gazetteers’), and all manner of objects.” (Kitchen)
When traditions go back so far, we have to wonder about the human predispositions that engendered them.
So much for now about hard-copy dictionaries, the vade mecum of Native and Expert Translators. For Natural Translators, as for all language speakers, there’s another kind of dictionary: the ones we carry round encoded neuronically in our heads. More about them when I have time.
Giovanni Pettinato. The Archives of Ebla, An Empire Inscribed in Clay. Translated from Italian Ebla un impero inciso nell'argilla. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday. 1981. Available from Amazon.
Kenneth A. Kitchen. Ebla – Queen of Ancient Syria, chapter 3 of The Bible in its World: The Bible and Archaeology Today. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1977. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/biiw/chapter3.pdf.