Release notes: new features and functions
This quarterly update to OED Online brings the usual diverse sets of new and revised words, but also some changes to the site’s features and functions.
In December 2015, we introduced audio pronunciations, alongside short summaries of word origins. We have extended each of those features. You can now order quick search results by frequency (as well as by date):
We have tweaked the display of word histories so that the summary of origin is clearly separated from the full etymology:
Most significantly, we have introduced audio files for regional pronunciations. This is a first, not just for the OED, but I think for any English dictionary online. This project is the result of intensive, collaborative work by a core team of Catherine Sangster (OED’s Head of Pronunciations), phonetician Matthew Moreland, and Gary Leicester (Pronunciation Data Architect in our English Language Teaching division). The recordings feature a large group of speakers, each a native of the relevant region, some from OED’s geographically diverse editorial team. You can read Catherine’s account of the project here, and find detailed descriptions of the methodology applied to each regional variety here.
Conceptually, at least, this project also has some roots in my earliest days preparing entries for OED’s new words team, when I was often asked to prepare entries for distinctively Scottish terms. Although this was a congenial form of tokenism, I often found myself obliged to provide a representation of how the word or phrase would sound in standard British English speech, when in reality some of these words were scarcely (if ever) spoken by non-Scots. One can recognize the value of a widely understandable standard for pronunciations, but some of these anglicized transcriptions seemed ersatz, a bit like someone who isn’t (but knows you to be) Scottish offering you a wee dram – at which moment you may need one. More pertinently, the omission of the “real” pronunciation seemed out of kilter with the wider editorial ethos of OED, which typically asserts the description of actual usage over the prescription of notional norms or standards.
The merits of using audio files to bring Scottish pronunciations to life seemed – to use a memorable phrase from Steve Coogan – as plain as an Aberdeen oatcake. Although the OED’s Third Edition has increasingly provided transcriptions of regional pronunciations, they have their limits. Take the rather evocative word bawheid:
As well as offering the pleasing contrast between the more languid Brit. pronunciation and the authentic, bracing Scottish one, bawheid exemplifies another practical advantage of audio. Here, as in many other examples of Scots words, the transcriptions for American and Scottish pronunciation are similar or identical, but the recordings reveal how distinct they really are.
It seems possible that these recordings for regional terms and borrowed words may be some of the most useful to OED’s readers. Some regional words have deep etymological roots, obscure meanings, complex histories, and highly variable spellings. They invite curiosity often precisely because they can be inscrutable and unfamiliar to the uninitiated. Their power to intrigue and confound is often most conspicuous in a sense of mystery as to how they might be pronounced. We hope these new recordings will demystify, enlighten, and (sometimes) entertain.
You may notice another significant feature making a first, prototypical appearance in OED Online is contextual linking: hyperlinking between some of OED’s quotations and the fuller context in the quoted work. We will address this exciting development fully in September’s update, when we unveil the fuller functionality.
As always, we’d be pleased to hear your views on these new features.