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An Interview With Mili Gabrovsek

Changing Dictionaries

A quick look on her profile page shows that Mili Gabrovsek’s expertise is, who would have guessed, language change. She has publications on dictionaries and a great interest for language in all its manifestations — especially song lyrics. Our very own Language Acquisition Tutor seems to be the best choice for enlightening us on the topics of literature and dictionaries. Not only will this short interview prove to be highly informative (did you know that some dictionaries added a new entry for ‘literally’), it is also incredibly fun to read about the diversity of books which moved, perplexed, and inspired Miss Gabrovsek.

WHICH BOOKS HAVE CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
As you can imagine, this is a very challenging question to answer, as quite a few books have had a pro-found impact on my life at different stages. I've read numerous books related to my work which strongly affected my ideas and beliefs re-garding linguistic theories and teaching approaches; accordingly, I'd like to answer this question more generally.

I remember being genuinely moved, almost traumatized by some of the Slovenian classics in my early teens, especially On the Hill by Ivan Cankar, one of the greatest Slovenian writers. It is a piece that is built on symbols, a masterfully written short novel about a simple, poor woman who keeps chasing life as she'd wish to live it, but it keeps slipping away; her chase is symbolized by her running after a cart, and I remember how her suffering got to me, because of how well the story was written and how real it seemed. That was probably the first time that I realized how powerful litera-ture was in conveying messages and that was a very memorable experience.

During my college years I was thoroughly impressed by Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which made me realize that my decision to study sociology was a good one; it is a mind-blowing piece on how modern capitalism is founded on ascetism, which is a prerequisite for it, and presents the idea that it is belief/religion that gives rise to an economic system, and not the other way around, as Marx postulated.

I should also mention Art Spiegelman's award-winning graphic novel Maus. I have always been fascinated by history, especially the Second World War, and this is such a great, well-told story about the author's father's life and his survival of Auschwitz. I remember being taken aback by the fact that the author's father was openly racist and did not like dark-skinned people, even though he was put in a concentration camp because of being Jewish; I thought it showed how inherently judgemental people were, to the extent that they failed to reflect on their own experience, and how deeply ingrained hate was.

The last piece I'd like to men-tion is David Foster Wallace's com-mencement speech delivered in 2005 - the only commencement speech he ever gave, in which he presented the most important les-sons he had learned in life. The speech in book form is entitled This is Water and I got it as a gift from one of my students. It is such a profoundly written speech, no nonsense or big words, but it hammers the message home so well. It is about the role of education, about how people see themselves and live their lives, and what true freedom actually stands for. This probably sounds vague and odd, but I would advise anyone to read it as it is wonderful in its simplicity and humbleness and yet life-changing in many ways.

YOU HAVE PUBLISHED A WORK ON DUTCH DICTIONARIES, BUT COULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT DICTIONARIES AND CHANGE IN GENERAL?
As far as change is concerned, I find it amusing how people sometimes feel that if a word enters a dictionary, it is there to stay — that dictionaries are rigid. That is not the case at all; words get deleted from dictionaries a lot, especially those which were used only in certain periods of time and then forgotten. I like it how dictionaries try to keep up with the times and the language of the users. Due to the frequent incorrect use of 'literally' in contexts where one is describing the oppo-site, thus something that cannot be true, some dictionaries, including Macmillan and Cambridge, added a new informal sense of the word that is used for emphatic purposes or used in extreme descriptions of things that cannot be true, which basically means that the word literally means its opposite.

This is real use recorded by dictionaries that have developed so well in the course of a few decades - a look at learners' dictionaries now-adays reveals their focus on most frequent words as entries, an abun-dance of examples of use and thou-sands of relevant collocations - they've become great learning and teaching tools. This was of course enabled by the development of cor-pus linguistics in the 1980s and be-yond and by the focus on the user, which have resulted in dictionaries as we know them today. Decades ago, lexicographers were working with informants, using citation slips, describing language without having the means to process it properly, which resulted in us only being able to look at ‘stylized snapshots' of the language as it was in a particular moment in time. Nowadays, the situation is considerably different as technological advances have trans-formed a dictionary into an interac-tive experience; due to modern tech-nology we are also able to make use of constantly updated, revised, ex-panded, and improved versions of dictionaries.

DO YOU FEEL THAT THE CHANGE THAT THE (ENGLISH) LANGUAGE UNDERGOES IS MOSTLY POSITIVE, IS IT ALL FOR THE BEST? OR DOES THE CHANGE DEFLATE THE LANGUAGE?
As a linguist, I believe that language change is part of a natural develop-ment of a language and I do not see it as either strictly positive or strictly negative - I see it as inevitable. Lan-guage is what happens 'out there' - it is a product of its users. It is a sign of the times and as such not bad or good. I am interested in language change and think that it is important to document it and describe it, to ask the question why it happens the way it does, but I am not in favour of evaluating it as neither good nor bad.

By Miriam Dieperink