The Future Of Dictionaries Digital, But Not Necessarily Free Of Charge

online dictionary
online dictionary | © kid_a -

Online dictionaries offer so many more advantages compared with those whacking great tomes of yesteryear. Will, however, such quality products like Duden & Co be able to stay free of charge forever?

You are not sure how to spell a word? You need a translation for a German or an English term? Of course, in certain situations we still reach for a dictionary from the bookshelf. When, however, we are at our computers or out and about with our smart phones and tablets, the digital alternatives seem ultimately more attractive. According to a survey carried out by the Bibliographische Institut (Bibliographical Institute) in Mannheim the Duden online dictionary is used every month by more than five million people. Even portals like or, which are not backed by any big names and whose content is almost entirely generated by the users themselves, enjoy huge amounts of traffic. A survey conducted in 2010 by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (Institute for the German Language) concluded that almost half of the people interviewed mainly used Internet dictionaries, whereas 40 per cent consulted both print and online dictionaries.

Online dictionaries – fast, simple and interactive

The advantages of digital dictionaries are obvious – entering the word in the search box is faster and easier than browsing through the pages of a thick, heavy tome. In many cases new entries are produced by the users’ search enquiries or by their suggestions. At best this can lead to the creation of state-of-the-art neologisms. “When an unknown term or phrase is used in a TV show, a few hundred people log in to Sprachnudel to discuss what it actually means,” says Naden Badalgogtapeh, who, just for the sheer fun and joy of playing with language, got together with some friends in 2005 and founded the neologism portal,

Old, established dictionary publishers, like Duden, and publicly financed lexicographical institutes have now also started providing their content in digital form. At first on CD and then later as Internet dictionaries or apps. “In contrast to print dictionaries size is suddenly not an issue at all. As a publisher of Internet dictionaries we also have the opportunity to make direct contact with our customers, offering them, for example, a digital dictionary coupled with a consultation,” says Sabine Krome, editor-in-chief of the “Wahrig” series at the Brockhaus publishing house. Wolfgang Walther, a member of the dictionary editorial staff at the Langenscheidt publishing house, emphasises, “You have to remember that the audio version of a digital dictionary no longer requires a highly complicated phonetic script and that words and visual images can be linked, and tables of noun declensions and verb conjugations can be depicted much more clearly. Now the sky really is the limit.”

Usability and cultural preservation – How much expertise does a user need?

One thing is also clear – not all the information on the Internet is subject to the same standards of quality. Users sometimes have a hard time assessing the reliability of the results obtained. Whereas some providers post user contributions online without checking them, others examine every entry editorially. “Some users just don’t make the effort or use the name of a person they want to make fun of. That is why we scrutinise every entry to sort out all this “trolling around”. Nevertheless our entries still remain somewhat unreliable for words can often have a new meaning or several meanings, not just one “right” or “wrong” one,” says Badalgogtapeh from Representatives from the more established publishing houses, on the other hand, place great importance on the high standards of their editing work. “Just as with printed books, digital content also has to be checked by a well trained editorial team who know the rules and can deal with the origins of words,” emphasises Werner Scholze-Stubenrecht, program manager of the Duden dictionary.

Could it be financed by professionals from the trade - and with the help of public projects?

The high standards of quality set by the established dictionary publishing houses run counter, however, to the fact that users do not want pay any money for the content of online dictionaries. Duden, for example, came to the conclusion in a large-scale market survey held at the end of 2009/ beginning of 2010 that very few people indeed are willing to pay for the online dictionary services. Back then Duden decided on a free portal, financed by advertising. According to Scholze-Stubenrecht, however, this has not turned out so far to be economically viable. Even models which allow the buyers of the printed version to access digital products or additional content that is protected by a password for no further charge, do not seem to have improved the situation in the long term. In particular as the publishing houses are also having to deal with other processes of change like the decline in the book business and in the falling numbers of children in schools.

This is the reason why Brockhaus “Wahrig” and Duden are thinking more and more about charging money for their Internet products. The Langenscheidt publishing house has already had some good experiences with this. “It is the professionals from the trade, in particular – translators, interpreters, professors in certain fields of research – who are perfectly willing to pay 50 euros for a top-quality app,” explains Wolfgang Walther. A possible alternative, according to Sabine Krome, might be cooperation projects with publicly financed institutions like universities or research institutes, as well as with other publishing houses, to ensure that in future top-quality content will still be available on the Internet free of charge – at least some of it. At the moment there is no way of knowing what the role of print dictionaries is going to be in the future. Despite all the benefits to be derived from online dictionaries, there is still a considerable number of people around who, when they have to look something up, still prefer to have a real book in their hands.