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Comenius Would Have Approved

Dan Visel at if:book, in a post titled “Wikipedia Before Wikipedia,” looks at the Trictionary, a grass-roots trilingual dictionary (English, Spanish, and Chinese) created between 1978 and 1981 by high school students on New York’s Lower East Side.

Here’s some text (from Tom MacArthur’s 1986 book Worlds of Reference):

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…

Out of that “small United Nations” came the idea for the book, because [ESL teacher Jane Shapiro] 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 Additionally, and damningly, Shapiro felt that what dictionaries were available “were either too stiff or out of date or written on a linguistic level far different from that of the students”.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…

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

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The abstract of a 1982 New Yorker story about the Trictionary…and if you’re a subscriber, read the whole thing online.

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