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Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog

A part of MoR's Home Library

Here is a list of the tools I use when I write in English. They are not the best tools but only the ones I like, so any suggestion from readers is welcome. I have also added a few reference tools and encyclopaedias, due to the nature of this blog.

Whatever help one can find in a dictionary, a thesaurus or any other resource, it is our mind & taste that have to make the appropriate choice, so here again a good reading experience of valuable texts is the key to decent writing.

Bilingual tools are also included. Why? Aren’t monolingual tools better?  Yes, they surely are since they force us to think in the new language, but here in my blog the protagonist is not a language, but ideas, history, philosophy etc. even though expressed in simple ways. Sometimes I need to brainstorm in Italian when topics become complex, thence the need of a few translation tools.

Bilingual tools

  • Wordreference.com. A good web resource I use daily with bilingual dictionaries of Italian, English, French, German, Greek, Romanian, Russian etc. Much quicker than any paper dictionary (which is unfortunate, because I love to leaf through dictionary pages).
  • The Lexilogos translation web portal, a French (French Canadian?) resource with automatic translators for almost every language on earth (Chinese, Arabic and Indian languages included). I dislike computer translations for their total weirdness and I seldom use them, but they can suggest unexpected solutions. Again, the right choice depends on us. The site comprises the Reverso.net, Google and Yahoo Babel fish translators. I’m told that Power Translator is also a good software for automatic translations.

Monolingual tools

  • The Merriam-Webster pocket dictionaries. Many years ago I stumbled upon an excellent Merriam-Webster paperback edition (based on the Collegiate edition, if I’m not wrong). Since then I am a Merriam-Webster aficionado and do not regret it. That magic compact book, now lost, helped me effectively with any text, from comics to English and American literature.
    I now use the Home and Office Collegiate-based paperback edition of 1995 (the second from the bottom left in the picture above).
    Merriam-Webster is to me THE monolingual dictionary, with word definitions written with admirable concinnitas.
  • The huge Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Dorset & Baber 1972. I bought it in Boston in 1993 for a bargain price. A sort of monster, or bambinone (big boy.) The link is to the latest edition.
  • The dictionaries page of Lexilogos, a web portal again from France, with tons of links to almost every on-line great dictionary, such as Oxford Oald, Cambridge, Oxford Compact, Collins, Etymonline, American Heritage, etc.
  • The on-line Cambridge dictionary. Another daily resource which helps me to contain mistakes with prepositions, such as to, for, of, in, by, on etc.
    English and the Latin languages use prepositions in a very different way. For example, which of the two is correct: Participate *to* a discussion or *in* a discussion? Italian and French prefer the former, English the latter. When my language experience is not enough, I need these (time-consuming) checks.
  • The Gnome Dictionary on Linux. An excellent tool I’m addicted to. It is a DICT client written by the Italian geek Emmanuele Bassi. I use it when I’m on Linux, which I can dual-boot on my mobile as an alternative to Windows XP. It allows quick access to numerous dictionaries including the fascinating Webster 1913 edition. I wonder if I’ll ever find a Windows version.
    Update:
    here is the Dict.org web page, which is of course platform (OS)-independent. Great tool, also for English mother-tongues I believe, and a way of tasting Linux software big power.
  • The Thesaurus.com web page, which also has a dictionary and a reference section (Ask.com). The Roget’s Thesaurus is a classic for synonyms I used a lot in the past, but I now prefer this on-line resource based on the Roget’s Thesaurus II. I also possess the Webster’s Thesaurus in book form (the first from the bottom-left) but I don’t like it much. A searchable on-line Roget’s Thesaurus (1911) can be found here.
    Synonyms are a treasure for writing, like the word thesaurus suggests, but they are of little help if you don’t “feel” which is the right word among a long list of synonyms. Experience, again, matters.

Reference & Encyclopedias

  • Enciclopedia Italiana dell’Istituto Treccani, 1939, which I find among the best for topics regarding the humanities. La Piccola Treccani, 1995, is more up-to-date but it is much smaller.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. I have the 1965 Edition, 23 volumes, quite good. I sometimes prefer the 1911 Britannica although this on-line version contains lots of errors. The on-line Britannica is excellent, always up-to-date and not too expensive yearly.
  • The Wikipedia. I am a great fan of this remarkable tool, possibly the biggest encyclopaedia ever created (see a discussion in the comments section).
  • Answers.com. A very good on-line tool, both a dictionary and an encyclopaedia, with excerpts from the Wikipedia as well. I’m getting addicted to it also because of the add-on for the Firefox browser (Answers), which enables to alt-click on any word for dictionary and encyclopaedia immediate reference.

Note. Links on this post are not provided for commercial purposes.

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger

American, British, French and Italian flags in New York City. Click for credits

This blog is written in a language that is not my own. They say that the older we grow the closer we get to the womb. While I was more drawn to the Germanic languages in my youth I now prefer my mother tongue or any Latin language. Writing in English is hence sometimes a pain to me although English being the first foreign language I got into in my adolescence it’s like a first love one cannot easily forget.

Toiling with Words and Sentences

At times I write directly in English without any problem. Other times I also directly write in English but I am unsure of myself. I continuously correct and rewrite sentences in blog writings and comments. I often paste a passage into a new clean white page, which refreshes my imagination. Sometimes it takes many new white pages to reach a passage that satisfies me, although I’m never satisfied. When I’m tired or when I’m writing something complicated I first write in Italian and I later translate all into English. This also happens when, afraid to let an idea slip away, I quickly jot it down in Italian.

Languages Contain Elements of a Culture

I have stopped blogging in both Italian and English although it has been an instructive experience. Working tightly with two languages was a little bit like thinking with two brains. A language contains elements of a culture. A language brings along a mentality, it brings along attitudes, values and also phrases often with no equivalent in other languages. It is also one good example where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, since for instance – and focusing only on two varieties of the same language – the lexicons of a cultivated American and a cultivated British are almost identical, but the choice of words and the way they are assembled produce something different, one feels it clearly, which is evidence of a different culture underneath. Of course with globalization such differences are getting less evident.

Latin Words in English

English contains a lot of Latin words, but its core is Germanic. The return to the Latin womb brings me to prefer English words from Latin, although I cannot always predict the effect they will have on my readers. ‘Comprehensible’ instead of ‘understandable’ sounds warmer to me, but the effect is formal instead. I mean, it’s not that easy to control the colouration (connotation) of words in a foreign language. Even the main meaning of a word (denotation) can be a problem. The same Latin words in English and Italian are sometimes false friends, namely words that are similar but have a different meaning. Actual for example means real in English but up-to-date in Italian (attuale), while preservative is an additive in English and, well, a condom in Italian (preservativo).

Prose and Rhythm

Writing is hard discipline in any language

I like prose with a rhythm. It is something beautiful which I can hope to attain in my language, not so much in a foreign language I learned through toil. At times I rewrite my English sentences until I find a rhythm that satisfies me. Reading good prose can be of great help and classics are always the best. Which brings me to the last point of this writing, the natural learning of languages.

The Input Method

When I was 14 I flunked English so I had to spend a bitter summer studying. For some weird reason instead of studying grammar I started reading American comic books (Superman) and the Longman series in easy English (now probably absorbed into the Penguin Readers graded collection). I discovered a new world!

I was absolutely delighted by colloquial American English and by these great English literary texts made so easy. My progress was sudden. I therefore applied this method to the study of ancient Greek and Latin by reading the Bible, the only easy text available in these two languages at that time. My progress here was amazing as well and my marks boosted up, much to my schoolmates’ astonishment.

A few years ago I was surprised to see that some people had sort of made a theory out of all this. It is sometimes called the input method in language learning. One learns a language by constant exposure to language input (reading and listening): texts, possibly good, and movies, TV etc. Output (writing and speaking) will come out naturally. It is after all how babies learn a language: they silently listen a lot, then they start speaking as if by miracle. Grammar can be useful at a later stage, to sort out things a bit (and in fact children later go to school). Some people even skip grammar. I once met a French-Canadian who was fluent in 9 languages: “I’m proud I didn’t touch any grammar“ he said.

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I’ve talked a bit about my English blogging experience and about my relationship with this beautiful language. In 3-4 days I will provide infos and links about the tools I use everyday in order to produce decent enough English texts. Hard toil, yes, but great fun as well.

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Other related posts:

Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition

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