Tom McArthur

Asian Lexicography: Past, Present, and Prospective

Tom McArthur


In 1997, I had the good fortune to attend two international conferences held in East Asia, the first in Hong Kong in March, the second in Tokyo in August. Both were concerned with lexicography but, although a number of people attended both, there was no intended link between them, and their approaches to lexicography were markedly different. They were:

  • Dictionaries in Asia. A gathering organized by the Language Centre of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and held at its campus at Clearwater Bay in Kowloon. During the conference proper, attention focused in the main on alphabetic lexicography and analogous formats, and on the closing day members inaugurated the Asian Association for Lexicography (ASIALEX). In addition to a large attendance from many parts of Asia, representatives and other well-wishers were present from four already established continental organizations: the Dictionary Society of North America (DSNA), the European Association for Lexicography (EURALEX), the African Association for Lexicography (AFRILEX), and the Australian Association for Lexicography (AUSTRALEX). I attended as publications consultant.
  • Language Study and the Thesaurus in the World. This gathering, organized by the Kokuritu Kokugo Kenkyuzyo (National Language Research Institute) in Tokyo, was held at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center and focused mainly on thematic lexicography – and is as far as I know the first conference in the world to do so. I was present as a guest speaker, invited to describe the nature, origin, and compilation of my Longman Lexicon (1981; see also 1986a, 1998b).

Despite the differences between the two (or rather because of them), the conferences proved to be valuable complementary events for those able to attend both. Because of such meetings, in Asia as elsewhere, it has now become possible to look forward to a conference devoted to ‘world lexicography’ (on whatever continent it may be held), that will seek to cover as wide a sampling as possible from our immense international heritage of reference materials, in all their formats, genres, rationales, writing systems, technologies, languages of origin, and languages of translation. It would be particularly good if the four continental -lexes and the DSNA could consider jointly sponsoring such a ‘Globalex’ development.

Asia and its Languages

Hong Kong and Tokyo, the venues of the conferences in question, are relatively close together, in a part of the world once Eurocentrically known in English as ‘the Far East’ and in French as l’Extrème-Orient. Two decades ago such terms were internationally commonplace, and they are certainly still with us, but on the edge of a new century they have an archaic feel about them, especially as the region is now more commonly and straightforwardly referred to, in English and especially in the media, as ‘East Asia’.

It is intriguing to consider what the participants might have thought and felt if the conferences had been held not in ‘East Asia’ but, say, in Ankara and Beirut (located in the former ‘Near East’: a label now virtually extinct), or in Damascus and Teheran (both still located in the ‘Middle East’ but increasingly also in ‘West Asia’), or in Tashkent and Samarkand (formerly and still safe in ‘Central Asia’), or in Karachi and Calcutta (formerly in ‘the Indian subcontinent’ but more recently in ‘South Asia’ or, on occasion, simply in ‘the Subcontinent’), or in Saigon and Manila (both located in a hyphenated ‘South-East Asia’). But wherever the conferences might have been situated and however they might have been nuanced in geocultural terms, they are significant for one reason above all others: that until now, Arabs, Iranians, and Indians, for example, have not been in the habit of discussing lexicography with Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese – except perhaps in such venues as the Dictionary Research Centre of the University of Exeter in England, where for years lexicographers from many backgrounds have been meeting. But if they have been talking to each other in such places, it has been more as lexicographers at large than as Asian lexicographers.

Asia is old and immense, but this lexical club is very new, and its members are so thin on the ground and many of the issues that concern them are so novel that much of the continent may remain unrepresented in their ranks for some time to come. To see why this is so, it may make sense here to consider the origins and nature of some of the names and concepts involved and at least raise the question of whether lexicography in Asia is – or can be? – based on any kind of unified – or unifiable? – sociolinguistic culture. In looking for the origins of ‘Asia’ as both word and concept, one must turn to the Greeks, a people who have been squeezed for several millennia between two cultural tectonic plates – so much so indeed that Herodotus wrote the first universal ‘history’ in terms of war between East and West: first between the Greeks and Trojans (who were in fact close neighbours), then between the Greeks and Persians (who were much more widely separated). The Greeks had a word for both the subject of this book (lexikographia) and the region in question (Asia), but they also had two – now largely forgotten – original senses for Asia, one of them mythological the other geographical. In mythology, Asia was a titan and the mother of titans. One of her sons was Atlas (who has served as an eponym three times over: for an everyday work of reference, for a range of mountains in North Africa, and for the Atlantic Ocean), another was Prometheus (a symbol of human, and later Western, arrogance in challenging the fundamental forces of nature and being punished for it). In geographical terms, however, Asia had more modest beginnings, as a small city on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, inland from which lay an uncertainly large region known as Anatolia (‘Land of the Rising Sun’). The later Latin equivalent of this name, oriens (‘rising’), is the literal root of the mysterious ‘Orient’.

By the time the Romans took over the eastern Mediterranean, the area of coverage of ‘Asia’ had become properly titanic. Both the city of Asia and Anatolia had by then been lumped together in a west-facing peninsula which the Romans called in Latin Asia Minor (‘Lesser Asia’), in contrast to a vast and conceptually shapeless Asia Major (‘Greater Asia’) that was now known to stretch all the way to Sinae and Serica (their names for parts of China). In later centuries, perhaps under pressure from inquisitive Europeans, the inhabitants of this huge expanse came to perceive themselves as inhabiting a single region from Mediterranean to Pacific, although in strictly geographical terms the landmass in question is a single ‘Eurasia’ rather than a smaller ‘Europe’ to the west and a larger ‘Asia’ to the east, Europe being in effect an Atlantic equivalent of the Indian subcontinent. The division of this single hard-to-encompass landmass into two such unequal continents is topographically illogical, but the distinction does make a kind of psychological sense. As the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said (1978:2-3) has observed, regarding European views of what lies to the east:

Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”. Thus, a very large mass of [European] writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction of East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its peoples, customs, “mind”, destiny, and so on.

The whole matter is both culturally and emotionally charged, as a consequence of which a range of European expressions that include the English terms Asiatic, Oriental, and Eastern have acquired over time certain suspect connotations, as a consequence of which the phrases ‘Oriental lexicography’, ‘Asiatic lexicography’, and ‘Eastern lexicography’ are impossible. At the end of the twentieth century, the only viable term to match such phrases as ‘European lexicography’ and ‘(North) American lexicography’ is ‘Asian lexicography’, because out of the set of relevant adjectives only Asian is neutral in terms of international pride and prejudice.

However, if denomination is odd, delimitation is odder, for where do Asia, its languages, and its lexicography begin and end? Arabia, India, China, and Japan (among other territories) are unequivocally ‘Asian’ and so therefore are their languages, but what does one do with Russia, an entity that extends over vast tracts of North-Eastern Europe and North and East Asia? Even makers of post-Soviet atlases are chary about the geopolitics of Russia, as for example the editors of the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Atlas of the World (UK: 1997), who divide the ‘old world’ into: Northern Europe; Southern Europe; Central Europe; Russia and its Western Neighbours; Central and Eastern Asia; South-East Asia, the Middle East and the Gulf, the Indian Subcontinent and its Neighbours; and Oceania.

The Digest may dodge this issue, but we should not, and can reasonably ask: Is Russian to be classed as an Asian language and, if so, should there have been a place for it and its lexicography both at the Hong Kong conference and in a book whose content derives largely from that conference? Or should Russian and its dictionaries be considered no more than the overland extension of a European culture into Asia, much as Dutch and its lexicography for a time extended by sea to what is now Indonesia (as Soekemi notes in his paper) and to Japan (as Yamada and Komuro point out in theirs)? One might say ‘yes’, categorizing Russian as alien despite the size of the territory involved and the obvious need to list indigenous Siberian languages that co-exist with Russian as unassailably Asian – along with any work done on them by Russian-speaking lexicographers.

There are also thought-provoking parallels elsewhere. Arabic, for example, is manifestly an Asian language, but is every bit as bicontinental as Russian, having ancient extensions into North and East Africa. It would be impossible to exclude Arabic from any comprehensive lexicographical discussion of ‘languages of Africa’ (as opposed to, say, ‘African languages’, if that formulation is to be reserved for the ultimately indigenous). But the time is likely to come – and probably quite soon – when Russian cannot be excluded from discussions of language and lexicography in Asia; it is after all as firmly established to the north of India and China and the west of Japan as Arabic is established south of the Mediterranean.

If the Russian and Arabic languages are bicontinental (and therefore the concern alike of EURALEX, AFRILEX, and ASIALEX), what can one say about omnicontinental English? Its inroads into Asia are so marked that no fewer than five papers in this volume relate to its Asian roles and to Asian dictionaries and dictionary research associated with teaching, learning, and using it: Lu Gusun on bilingual Chinese/English lexicography, Li Lan on dictionaries as aids to the learning of English in China; Jacqueline Lam Kam-mei on a glossary to help (especially Hong Kong) students with computer science texts in English; Ilan Kernerman on semi-bilingualized English learners’ dictionaries in Asia and elsewhere; and Shigeru Yamada and Yuri Komuro on the origin and immense educational and commercial success of Japanese English learners’ dictionaries. Reiko Takeda even turns the tables entirely, and as an Asian researcher into European lexicography reports on lesser-known aspects of the lexicography of English not in Asia at all but in England in the fifteenth century. Sauce for the goose….

In addition, English enters obliquely into other papers, as for example where Lee Sangsup, discussing the Dictionary of Korean, indicates the key role played by the Oxford English Dictionary as a model, and where Arvind Kumar compares two Indian thesauruses (one ancient and in Sanskrit, the other recent and in Hindi) with Roget, an originally nineteenth-century English-language work which he treats as a touchstone for the genre.

Finally, the medium of the present collection of papers is uniformly English, and it is hard to imagine any other language that could have served to weave together such varied strands as these. [It is noteworthy, however, that at the Hong Kong conference papers could be and were delivered in Mandarin or English, and at the Tokyo conference in Japanese, Mandarin, or English. How many other languages might be deemed to merit the same treatment at a comprehensively pan-Asian gathering?] English is here at least ‘a language of Asia’ if not (yet) ‘an Asian language’, although already these days – safely beyond lexicographical circles – it is often referred to as just that, for at least the following five reasons (see also McArthur, 1998a):

  • English has been used widely in Asia for as long as it has been used in the Americas (that is, since the seventeenth century), and by considerable numbers of people, especially in South and South-East Asia.
  • In recent years (much to the surprise of many of its own inhabitants), Australia has been ‘re-branded’ as Asian rather than Australasian (in origin a Latinate term meaning ‘South Asian’), and is often so listed in international periodicals (especially for economic and financial purposes). Thus, Philip Bowring comments in the article ‘Australia: Regional Leader or Orphan Adrift?’ (International Herald Tribune, 1 October 1992): “Australia and its neighbors have to recognize that Asia is simply a geographical definition, and for practical purposes Australia is part of it.” The national language of Australia is English, and many East Asians send their children there for educational reasons that pre-eminently include improving their English – in the process of course Asianizing it further.
  • It is the language that Asians need not only for purposes of communicating with other continents and engaging in worldwide scientific and other activities whose dominant medium is English, but also (pre-eminently?) for intra-Asian communication: Thais with Japanese, Koreans with Indonesians, Filipinos with Asian Russians, Chinese with Pakistanis, Gulf Arabs with Indians.
  • It has highly significant and long-standing official roles within Asia. Thus, in the Philippines it is co-official with Filipino (Pilipino, Tagalog); in Singapore it is one of four official languages, alongside Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil; in Hong Kong (now integrated into China as a special administrative region) it is a key everyday language of business and education alongside Cantonese and increasingly Mandarin/Putonghua; and, momentously, it has in India three distinct legislated roles, as the associate official language (Hindi being official), as a national language (alongside Bengali, Gujerati, Tamil, and other state languages), and as the sole official language of eight Union territories (including Delhi, Nagaland, and Pondicherry) – all additional to its use as a medium of education, business, and – famously – ‘a window on the world’.
  • It is the working language of ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations), a regional organization founded in 1967 for economic, social, and cultural co-operation, whose members are currently Brunei, Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

There have always been world languages, in the sense that the language of culturally, economically, and militarily powerful communities have impacted on the known worlds of their time and place. Asia has had its share of such languages, which include Sanskrit (brought to our attention here by Arvind Kumar), Persian (whose lexicography is discussed by Ahmad Taherian), Malay (covered by both Nur Ida Ramli of Malaysia and Soekemi of Indonesia), and Classical Chinese (with its influence not only in the Middle Kingdom but also in Korea, Japan, and Indo-China, and the concern here particularly of Lu Gusun and Li Lan). English differs from other world languages only – yet it is an overwhelming ‘only’ – is that its world is the entire planet, its speakers are the most widely distributed and the most ethnoculturally varied ever, and their numbers increase by the year. Demographically the only Asian rival to English – and it is a powerful ‘only’ – is Mandarin/Putonghua, which may not be spoken an written by all Chinese but is for all of them the touchstone of linguistic excellence. Inevitably, these two giants among languages will have much to do with each other in the coming century, including in lexicographical terms.

Asia and its Lexicographies

The word lexicography has the same Greco-Latin pedigree and structure as biology, astronomy, osteopathy, phylogeny, and other widely-used names for academic activities and subjects. As such, it is part of what the American dictionary editor Philip Gove (1963:7a) has called International Scientific Vocabulary (ISV). Although Gove has for his purposes treated such words as restricted to English, they are in reality ‘translinguistic’: they operate (with appropriate phonological and orthographic adaptations) in many languages that serve as mediums for education, culture, science, and technology: not only in, say, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, or English (European languages traditionally receptive to Classical word elements and patterns) but also in Japanese, Malay, Tagalog/Pilipino, and other Asian languages (to which they are often transmitted through modern European languages). In effect, such words have no ultimate canonical forms: their embodiments in any language are all equally valid as citation forms. Because no language-specific version of such a term has primacy, an ISV word is truly international, transcending individual languages, a point which lexicographers worldwide have yet to come to terms with. ISV words would appear to be – both in their own right and through any loan translations that may have been made from them – the most universal set of lexical items on earth.

Not all such Greco-Latinisms are however equally ‘scientific’. On the one hand, such terms as biology and physics, which serve to label branches of science itself, are manifestly part of an originally European endeavour that has in the last century or so become fully cosmopolitan, but on the other hand terms such as lexicography and psychotherapy refer to social and professional activities, not to ‘hard’ sciences, and other terms still, such as necromancy and anthropophagy, label activities that are not at all scientific – although scientists and scholars may take an interest in them, and are likely to be prominent among the few who use the terms. All such words are however at their very least specialist terms, for which reason (pace Gove) I prefer to interpret ‘ISV’ as ‘International Specialist Vocabulary’ (cf. Kirkness, 1997, who identifies them more particularly as ‘Euroclassicisms’).

Because the strictly scientific ISV terms are unitarian and now cosmopolitan, one cannot treat a ‘biology in Europe’ and a ‘biology in Asia’ as being different in kind: they are the same thing pursued in different locales. Matters are not so clear, however, for such items as ‘lexicography’ and ‘psychotherapy’. Do such terms mean something essentially European that is spreading throughout the world, as biology has done, and may at length have the same comprehensive status as biology, or do they – actually or potentially – refer to more general, more culturally varied matters, so that for example traditional, millennia-old Chinese lexicography might differ markedly from centuries-old British, American, and French lexicography yet be recognised everywhere instantly and fully as equally lexicographical? Indeed, are we seeing a kind of hybridization under way, where aspects of Western lexicography combine usefully with aspects of Eastern lexicography? An example might be present-day bilingual English-Chinese dictionaries such as Lu Gusun and Li Lan discuss, where the English-Chinese section has an A-Z ordering of lemmata and the Chinese-English section is traditionally ordered according to a conventional listing of the strokes of which Chinese characters are composed.

The discussion need not however end there. The condition of lexicography in Asia may be closer to that of a comparably culture-laden activity that has travelled the other way, from East to West, as for example yoga in Europe and America. Such a comparison leaps to my mind because intermittently over some thirty years I have attended (and spoken at) conventions of yoga teachers and students in the United Kingdom, have written two books about India, yoga, Indian philosophy, and their spread worldwide (McArthur 1986b/c), and at one time, for several years, edited the journal of an association which was concerned (in effect) with indigenizing yoga in Scotland: a process that included the accreditation of local teachers of yoga by the Scottish Sports Council – an example of culture clash if ever there was one. During that period such concepts as asana (a physical pose), dhyana (meditation), and mantra (a repeated sound serving to focus the mind) have gone from being generally regarded in the West as eccentrically and exotically Eastern to being about as common and virtually as unremarked as the terminology of golf.

The organization of conferences about dictionaries in Asia and conventions for yoga in Europe can be perceived as a vast process of cultural exchange. In such an exchange, questions like the following arise: In their encounter with yoga in Europe and other non-Asian locales, should non-Asians regard it as ‘essentially’ Eastern and therefore forever ‘other’, no matter how strong the effort to naturalize it, or do they absorb and extend the subject so as to incorporate comparable practices among Europeans and others into a more inclusive view of yoga (that may also include such other Asian philosophical-cum-physical systems as tai-chi, Zen, and Sufism)? Comparably, in their encounter with lexicography, should Asians (and others) regard it as ‘essentially’ Western and focused on ‘dictionaries’ (understood in an A-Z sense), and so forever to some degree ‘other’, or do they absorb and extend the subject so as to include comparable practices among Asians within what can become a more inclusive view of lexicography?

There may be no neat and tidy answer to such questions, but the papers in this volume, it seems to me, in addition to their valuable immediate aims contain the seeds of studies, both diachronic and synchronic, that could be immensely helpful in placing lexicography in a geographically wider and chronologically deeper frame of reference. Let me mention here only three areas that belong very much to Asia, about which one day I hope to know more:

(1) Lexicophony

At present I can think of no better name for something which Arvind Kumar discusses in his paper: a tradition probably over three millennia old in South Asia, in which the brahmins of Vedic India orally and aurally encoded in Sanskrit verse not only religious but also lexical information, to be recited as the need for consultation and instruction arose. Such pre-literate artifacts have been the lexicographical equivalents of Homer’s Iliad or, in more local terms, of Vyasa’s Mahabharata.

(2) Bilingual word lists

Such lists, which recur throughout this collection in relation to the present-day bilingual-dictionary industry, had their origins in West Asia. Some three millennia ago in Mesopotamia, Semitic-speaking scribes in the city state of Akkad (and later in Babylon and Nineveh), borrowed cuneiform writing from their southern neighbours in Sumer, the creators of the world’s earliest known writing system (cf. McArthur 1986a, Chs. 4-5). In the process, the formulated Semitic equivalents for Sumerian originals, creating the first lists of language equivalents set side by side in columns on clay tablets.

(3) Ideographic lexicography

First formulated in China over two millennia ago, the signs in such a system in the main represent concepts rather than sounds and words as such: that is, they are ideographic rather than phonographic and logographic. As such, they are in principle as detachable from the language to which they initially relate as alphabetic letters have been, as demonstrated for example by their adoption to serve Japanese, which is structurally entirely different from Chinese. In essence, such a system is a (successful and extensive) ancient cousin of the (failed and more limited) philosophical language with which Bishop John Wilkins experimented in seventeenth-century England, a quest for a conceptual ‘language’ that in due course inspired Roget when he created his Thesaurus in the mid-nineteenth century.

The prospects are endless and enticing, and the present collection of papers already provides a varied spread of approaches, perspectives, descriptions, and proposals ranging from the remotest times to the day after tomorrow, contributing significantly to an academic discipline which Reinhard Hartmann and I call ‘reference science’ (see McArthur, 1998c). It is refreshing that the collection covers several generations of scholars, all of whom I wish to thank here for their collaboration in making the volume possible; I am immensely pleased to have been part of its creation. Lexicography in Asia, it seems to me, is a noteworthy step towards the collaborative formulation of a single over-arching typology for all works of lexical reference, wherever and whenever compiled, by whomever and in whatever language, and through whatever compiling, recording, and presentational technology.

lexicography in asia

Introduction to Lexicography in Asia. Selected papers from the Dictionaries in Asia Conference, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 1997, and other papers. Edited by Tom McArthur and Ilan Kernerman. 1998: 9-20. Tel Aviv: Password Publishers.



Gove, Philip (ed.). 1963. Webster’s Third International Dictionary. Springfield, Mass: G. & C. Merriam.
Kirkness, Alan. 1997. Eurolatin and English today. English Today, 13.1:3-8.
McArthur, Tom. 1981. Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English. Harlow: Longman.
McArthur, Tom. 1986a. Worlds of Reference: Language, Lexicography and Learning from the Clay Tablet to the Computer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McArthur, Tom. 1986b. Yoga and the Bhagavad-Gita. Wellingborough: Thorsons/HarperCollins.
McArthur, Tom. 1986c. Understanding Yoga: A Thematic Companion to Yoga and Indian Philosophy. Wellingborough: Thorsons/HarperCollins.
McArthur, Tom. 1998a. The English Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McArthur, Tom. 1998b. A mutually defining circle of words: some reflections on the making of the Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English. Ch. 14 in Living Words: Language, Lexicography, and the Knowledge Revolution. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.
McArthur, Tom. 1998c. What is ‘reference science’? Lexicon, 28. Tokyo: Iwasaki Linguistic Circle. 135-140.
Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


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