Thursday, May 23, 2013

Remarks to the Dictionary Society of North America, May 23, 2013

I’m pleased to welcome the members of the Dictionary Society of North America to the University of Georgia and to say a few words of exhortation as you prepare for your 19th biennial meeting.  My field is literary studies, and though I have used dictionaries all my life, in paper and digital form, I can’t claim to know a lot about how they are put together and the thinking that lies behind them.  I do think of dictionaries as an original form of Big Data (with capital letters), a linguistic and cultural archive of information about how we think and talk and feel that contains the deepest substance and meanings of our civilizations.  Dictionaries are (and maybe this is an old-fashioned concept) archives of the most important sort. 

Many of you may think of yourselves as humanists, some of you may be social scientists, and some of you may be in other fields entirely, such as computing, but I think of all of you as humanists.  The process of putting together a dictionary is a fundamentally humanistic one because language is a basic feature of what it means to be human.

It is almost a hackneyed cliché these days to say that we are in a state of fundamental change.  I think that the change happening right now is more sweeping and fundamental than any of us realize.  Lexicographers and those who conceptualize and construct and talk about dictionaries face the same challenges that the humanities at large are facing: how is change going to change us?  How will digital technology transform us?  Are the boundaries by which we’ve traditionally defined ourselves becoming more destructive than creative?  How are constantly shifting cultural and national and linguistic and ideological boundaries going to affect what we as humanists, what you as dictionary makers, do? 

We can’t sit back and be passive as change happens. We have to take charge. We have to control the process of change.  Once we come out on the other side of whatever place it is we are in right now, however unfamiliar the new territory and its terrains and disciplines may be, we have to make certain that the values that have been important to humanistic studies since their beginnings survive.

Thank you for what you do.  And with that, I hope you will have a pleasant and productive conference here at the University of Georgia, where spring is fast becoming summer, that time of year when above all else air conditioners are king.

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