The Intercontinental Dictionary Series

Founding Editor:
†Mary Ritchie Key
General Editor:
Bernard Comrie


The Intercontinental Dictionary Series (IDS) is a database where lexical material across the languages of the world is organized in such a way that comparisons can be made. Historical and comparative studies and theoretical linguistic research can be based on this documentation. The IDS was conceived of by Mary Ritchie Key (University of California, Irvine) in the 1980s as a long-term cooperative project that will go on for the next generation or so and will involve linguists all over the world. It is aimed towards international understanding and cooperation. This is a pioneering effort that will have global impact. The purpose also contributes to preserving information on the little-known and "non-prestigious" languages of the world, many of which are becoming extinct.


Information on languages of the world is scattered over all the continents and islands and published in dozens of languages and scripts. There is need of a database where one can find comparable material to formulate hypotheses and test and validate those theories. For example, theories on intercontinental connections have been proposed on the basis of the distribution of 'sweet potato' and yet there is no single source where words with this meaning can be found in many languages. Good quantitative and statistical studies are almost impossible to do now in non-Western languages. The IDS will provide a quantitative base for a scientific approach to language analysis and comparison. The IDS will provide the research tools necessary for expanding studies such as phonological theory, word formation, language change, lexical distribution, symbolism and onomatopoeia, language classification, and other ideas that have to do with history of people and migrations. The IDS will serve not only as a synonym dictionary (or cross-linguistic thesaurus) but as an index to meaning and to cultures of various peoples around the earth.

Plan of Series

The IDS wordlists appear as a series of digital, freely accessible, freely downloadable, and freely usable wordlists (CC-BY license).


The IDS is developed in cooperation and complementation with other research projects. Throughout the world there are linguistic activities from establishing databases in universities and think-tanks to publishing grammar series and literacy materials, to individual projects such as dictionaries of single languages. Many projects seek to make linguistic data accessible in a format that will allow generalizations to be made. Recent developments now give us the potential for tying together linguistic databases. The IDS aims to be part of these activities.


Each wordlist has been produced in the same format, which assures the cross-linguistic comparability. Comparative work in Indo-European has been carried on for over 200 years, and excellent research tools have been produced. This experience forms a basis for similar research tools to be produced for the pre-literate languages that have been more recently recorded. Specifically, a model for IDS is A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, compiled by Carl Darling Buck. The dictionary is organized in a topical outline of 22 chapters. The outline has been adapted for the IDS, with the numbering system generally maintained; and this remains the same for all the wordlists. Buck's dictionary contains approximately 1200 potential entries (not complete for all languages, of course). The IDS adaptation contains 1310 entries. If a form does not exist in a certain area of the world, the entry is left blank. The entries are given with English as the first heading, and where appropriate the language(s) of the area alongside, for example, English, Portuguese, and Spanish for indigenous languages of South America.


Each wordlist is the responsibility of an individual author or team of authors. The actual contributors of language data, the consultants, generally have a high level of fieldwork experience in the language, and are often native speakers of the languages recorded. Much of the data being entered into the dictionary is from unpublished field notes, which thereby become more widely accessible. In addition, groups of wordlists from a particular language family or geographical area have sometimes been produced under the guidance of a single author or team of authors. The general editor has overall responsibility for the project.

Choice of Languages

Ideally, the coverage would be comprehensive, but practical consideration has had to be given to:
  • availability of publications and fieldwork;
  • comparative work done;
  • coordination with other research;
  • contacts and cooperation of personnel and their expertise.
Each language that has been entered has been corrected and supported by linguistic experts, who were consulted regularly.

Compiling the lists

The production of each wordlist involves sufficient interaction between the general editor, the author, and the consultants to assure accuracy. During the initial stages of compilation, the general editor acquaints the author and, through the author, the collaborators with the outline and organization of the dictionary as a series. The IDS WordList is distributed to each author and consultant. As the author and consultants fill in the wordlist, correspondence with the general editor deals with such matters as morpheme division, dialect usage, orthography, and difficulties in finding the correct translations. The final stage of this collaboration results in a pre-publication copy which is sent to the author (and, where appropriate, consultants) for final checking.

Digital implementation

Advances over the last decades have vastly improved the possibilities for hosting IDS material on the internet, well beyond the project's initial expectations. These advances have also brought with them challenges in adapting earlier IDS materials and assuring consistency and sustainability, considerably delaying the public launch of the new web site. Particular thanks go to Hans-Jörg Bibiko and Robert Forkel for meeting these challenges. The IDS data are now stored in a machine-readable format that can be posted on the internet. This opens unlimited access to IDS data for scholars from all over the world, to use the dictionaries for further research.

Origin and History of IDS

The idea for a work such as the IDS came to Mary Ritchie Key while on a Fulbright in Chile in 1975 studying the semantic grouping in the cognate sets of comparative studies. This was followed by pilot projects at the University of California, Irvine, using comparative data of recognized language families. In 1982, a computer science and math major constructed a program called ASYNCOG, using three words from C.D. Buck: 'water', 'skin', 'eat'. Scholars were contacted who were chosen for their interests in cross-cultural research and for their skills and willingness to give time and thought to the objectives of the dictionary series. In 1984, an award from the University of California, Irvine Faculty Research Committee to launch the Intercontinental Dictionary Series set the series on its way. In 1990, the IDS won an Honorable Mention from the Rolex Awards for Enterprise In 1998, Bernard Comrie took over from Mary Ritchie Key and continued to develop IDS at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

Further Possibilities

The obvious and immediate product of this intercontinental enterprise is a dictionary series. There are other imaginable goals for the future. An IDS center would serve as a clearinghouse for comparative work between the continents. It could also serve as a repository for scholars to leave their unpublished materials in a place where they would be appreciated and utilized in further research. Thus, it would assure preservation and continuity of unpublished work-in-progress. And finally, it would bring together data on the languages of the world, in such away that would give importance to all languages. This speaks to the unity of all the peoples on earth.


Bernard Comrie (University of California, Santa Barbara) wishes to acknowledge the support of the Max Planck Society (especially through the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) in updating and expanding the IDS, and of Mary Ritchie Key for a generous grant that enabled the collection of IDS lists for Tai-Kadai and Mon-Khmer languages of Southeast Asia.


Borin, Lars & Comrie, Bernard & Saxena, Anju. 2013. The Intercontinental Dictionary Series: A rich and principled database for language comparison. In Borin, Lars & Saxena, Anju (eds.). Approaches to measuring linguistic differences, 285-302. (Trends in Linguistics, 265.) Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.