ABC Chinese-English Dictionary

cover of ABC Chinese English Dictionary by DeFrancis

ABC Chinese-English Dictionary
edited by John DeFrancis
University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1999 (pocket edition)
ISBN: 0824821548
Cost: NT$630 at Caves Books, Taipei

Some dictionaries index the characters by pinyin. The ABC Dictionary actually takes the organisation of Chinese words by pinyin a step further. Rather than just indexing characters by pinyin it indexes individual words by pinyin. ABC is actually a clever acronym meaning "Alphabetically Based Computerized".

It is a revolutionary approach to the language. It is easy to get trapped into thinking Chinese is a language made up of characters (字), but in fact it is made up of words (詞). Most of these words have multiple syllables, and hence multiple characters.

Making the switch from a character based dictionary to this dictionary does take a little getting used to. It also shows that there are advantages and disadvantages to both systems of indexing. Chinese characters are without a doubt cumbersome to index. There will always be a few characters where it is difficult to figure out the exact number of strokes or the exact radical to find the character. With the ABC Dictionary as long as you know the pronunciation of the word then it is very fast and easy to find it in the dictionary.

This dictionary is particularly useful for finding words that you hear spoken and are not sure of the meaning. It is often very difficult to find words that you hear in character based dictionaries even if you know the exact pronunciation. For example, if you hear the word jīfĕng (譏諷) you will have to look through the individual entries for about 30 characters to find the word in a character based dictionary. If you are unsure of the tone of the first syllable finding the word becomes a near impossible task. In the ABC dictionary you can find it right between jìfēn and jífēng. Even if you are unsure of the tone then it is only a matter of checking a few entries which are located next to each other. (Many Taiwanese people don't clearly pronounce the different sounds like z/zh and s/sh, so sometimes you need to cross check the entries for both sounds.)

However, when you don't know the pronunciation and have to look up the character by radical or stroke number then some of the advantage of using the ABC Dictionary is lost (it does have a radical index at the back).

The dictionary has been compiled using lexical data from both China and Taiwan. Where there are differences in usage between the two countries this is noted using PRC or TW in the entry. Another great feature of the dictionary is that where homophones occur these are ranked in order of frequency.

One disadvantage of this dictionary for users in Taiwan is that it uses simplified characters. Single character entries show the traditional character (where it is different), but multiple character words are only shown with simplified characters. For example, the entry for wèi shows 卫 (衛) but the entry for wèishēng only shows 卫生 not 衛生. There are radical indexes for both simplified and traditional characters at the back of the dictionary.

The usage of the roman alphabet in some Chinese words is also included in the dictionary with entries such as A-xíng gānyán (A型肝炎) meaning hepatitis A and T-xù (T恤) meaning T-shirt. There is even an entry for kălā OK (karaoke). This reflects the contemporary usage of Chinese. (KTV doesn't get an entry though.)

One advantage of a character based dictionary is that words with similar meanings are grouped together. Words that have the same first character will often (although not always) have related meanings. For example, in a character based dictionary, shèjì (設計) meaning design would be immediately followed by shèjìshī (設計師 meaning designer) and shèjìtú (設計圖) meaning design drawing. In the ABC Dictionary shèjì is bracketed by shèjí (涉及) meaning to involve and shèjì (社稷) meaning the state or country.

I don't think any particular dictionary can cater to a language learner's every need. This dictionary is best used as a reference for looking up words that you hear. When reading texts it is probably easier to use a character based dictionary. However, this dictionary would make a very useful addition to the library of any serious student of Mandarin.

* A sample of the text of the dictionary can be found here.

** This review was originally posted at David on Formosa on 5 December 2006. It has been edited slightly.