On 16 October every year, the world celebrates the birthday of Noah Webster, born in 1758, as International Dictionary Day.
His dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828, has earned Webster a cult status in America and beyond.
The earliest dictionarymakers were motivated by a problem-solving spirit.
With time, they also became repositories from which information could be retrieved to quench human thirst for knowledge, be it linguistic or specialised knowledge associated with religion, medicine, etc.
Unfortunately, dictionarymakers in the less powerful languages are less known.
Yet it is through dictionaries that those languages have been documented and preserved beyond their oral forms.
The dictionary is an integral and one of the earliest tools in the intellectualisation of a language.
The growing urgency to intellectualise African languages sees dictionary-making gaining renewed prominence.
In African languages such as ChiShona in Zimbabwe and isiXhosa in South Africa, the earliest dictionaries were compiled by missionaries. Nowadays dictionary-making in African languages is being spearheaded by government agencies to promote these languages for expanded sociopolitical functions.
South Africa's post-1994 policy which encourages competence in more than one language has seen an increase in the production of multilingual school dictionaries.
However, a challenge remains, in that dictionary culture in our schools and communities in general, is still very poor. Not only learners lack dictionary- using skills; teachers also lack them.
Dictionaries are thus sometimes regarded as nice-tohaves rather than essential learning and teaching aids.
To alleviate the problem of a poor dictionary culture, some higher education institutions such as Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University, the University of Pretoria, etc, have incorporated dictionary courses in their language and linguistics courses.
During this International Dictionary Week, we hope more people will become aware of the value of dictionaries and start to use dictionaries as frequently as they encounter communication and learning problems.
As containers of knowledge and learning aids, dictionaries can play an integral role in the literacy endeavours of our communities.
Article by: Dion Nkomo
Article Source: Grocott's Mail