The Intercontinental Dictionary Series
†Mary Ritchie Key
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
by Carl Darling Buck
The dictionary is organized in a topical outline of
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
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
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
Choice of Languages
Ideally, the coverage would be comprehensive, but practical consideration has had to be
- 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.
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.
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.