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A Collaborative Trictionary Created Between 1978 and 1982

  • February 13, 2009
  • Maya
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Dan Visel takes a look at a “Wikipedia before Wikipedia” and shares a few insights on ‘collaborative creation of knowledge’ from the book he is reading:

At least one remarkable precedent exists for this idea: a project undertaken between 1978 and 1982 on the lower East Side of New York City which produced a “Trictionary” without a single really-truly lexicographer being involved.

The Trictionary is a 400-page trilingual English/Spanish/Chinese wordbook, covering a base vocabulary of some 3,000 items per language.

The compilation was done, as The New Yorker reports (10 May 1982) “by the spare-time energy of some 150 young people from the neighborhood”, aged between 10 and 15, two afternoons a week over three years. New York is the multilingual city par excellence, in which, as the report points out, “some of its citizens live in a kind of linguistic isolation, islanded in their languages”. The Trictionary was an effort to do something about that kind of isolation and separateness. One method used in the project was getting together a group of youngsters variously skilled in English, Spanish and Chinese and “brainstorming” over, say, the word ANIMALS written on an otherwise empty blackboard. They would think of animals and considered how they were labelled in each language, putting their triples on the board and arguing about the legitimacy of particular terms. Another method was the review session, a more sophisticated activity where a stack of blue cards with English words on them was used to create equivalent stacks in pink for Spanish and yellow for Chinese. It was out of this kind of interactive effort that the Trictionary developed, until in its final form it had a blue section with English first, a second section that was yellow and Chinese, and a third section that was pink and Spanish. Each part had three columns per page, with each language appropriately presented. In all three sections, the material was punctuated here and there by line drawings done by the youngsters themselves.

Jane Shapiro told The New Yorker that when she first went to work in the area she had had no idea what the language situation was like. The neighbourhood is about 80% Chinese and 20% Spanish-speaking, and in class she had often found herself in the position of comparing all three languages. Out of that “small United Nations” came the idea for the book, because she had often wished for such a book, but of course no right-minded publisher had ever thought of that particular combination as commercially viable or academically interesting. Additionally, and damningly, Shapiro felt that what dictionaries were available “were either too stiff or out of date or written on a linguistic level far different from that of the students”. In other words, because formal lexicography had nothing to offer, grass-roots lexicography had to serve instead.

Motivation was high, despite a shifting population of helpers, evidently because the children could see the practical utility of what they were doing. One youngster engaged in the work was Iris Chu, born in Venezuela of Chinese parents and brought to New York about five years earlier. She told The New Yorker that she made a lot of friends while working on the Trictionary (the opposite to what often happens to lexicographers), adding: “It’s funny to see it as a book now – before, it was just something we did every week. I’m really sorry it’s over. For us, it was a whole lot of fun.”

Read the entire article here.

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