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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics. © 1999 Nigel Armstrong.
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This book, announcing itself as the first bilingual thesaurus of its kind, is aimed at 'intermediate and more advanced' learners of French. It has the classic structure established by Roget, with 14 core thematic entries, arranged according to semantic field and sub-divided further into 98 heads, which in their turn are divided more finely into lexical fields. As in Roget, there is both a synopsis and full list of the themes; these again broadly follow the categories established by the inventor of the format. In addition to these 14 'conceptual' categories, there is a section rather oddly entitled 'Conversational Gambits' which covers a further 44 communicative or functional-notional topics: the expression of requests, orders, agreement, etc., as well as culture-specific information on topics like the drafting of letters. In a final section, the forms of the verb paradigms are laid out schematically.Anyone familiar with Roget's pioneering volume knows that the themes covered range, seemingly in no highly-motivated order but perhaps broadly in decreasing degree of abstraction, from time, space and matter, to emotion, volition and causation, to mention only a selection; within this grouping technique there is a heavy reliance on free association. As we shall see, this latter method can be a curse as well as a blessing. The thematic arrangement is backed up in the present volume, again following Roget, with two indexes, in English and French. The alphabetical indexes are of course needed to compensate for the essentially arbitrary arrangement of the synopsis and associated table of contents at the front of the book. But unlike Roget, the indexes in this volume are not sub-categorised according to the various senses of each word, although words with multiple senses are listed separately. The English and French indexes comprise some 8,000 words each, which clearly is modest compared to a monolingual thesaurus; the index of my Roget runs to over 600 crowded pages, but these include of course much repetition in the form of cross-reference. What is the present volume setting out to do? The essential aim must be similar to that of the monolingual thesaurus, albeit at a lower level: to enhance word-power, promote elegant variation, or expressed less positively, to compensate for temporary or permanent memory deficits. A related aim is to provide exactly the right synonym: 'le mot juste'. To couch the matter in more technical terms, the thesaurus is there to help the writer distinguish between various shades of synonymy, antonymy and hyponymy, subtle or gross. Yet another way of putting this is by reference to passive as against active linguistic competence; in our mother tongue as well as our second languages, we all have far more words as it were in storage than in live memory, and the thesaurus aims to help overcome retrieval problems. The obvious difference between the monolingual thesaurus and the present volume is that the latter gives explicit guidance on differences in shades of meaning, while the former relies on the simple grouping of words, expecting the native writer-reader to do the rest. This new bilingual thesaurus is therefore closer to a 'synonymic dictionary', as the French would say, than to a Roget. The decision to include definitions, clearly justifiable for book at this level, has the effect of imposing space constraints; anything like a full-blown bilingual Roget that included definitions as well would be a massive volume indeed. As it is, the present book is by no means formidably large, which implies a ready-reference function rather than something more authoritative. The difficulty for the compiler of balancing intension and extension is reflected in the question that preoccupies reviewers of any book that is essentially a list, however sophisticated its organisation: why was X left out when Y was included? When the lexicon of French is in question, this problem is further intensified because for some reason the French language is particularly rich in near-synonyms distinguished by their level of formality: lycée but also bahut; manger but also bouffer; and so on. So a word like voiture, the term for 'car' which is socio-stylistically more or less neutral, is complemented by words having identical or equivalent reference but differing sociolinguistic value: automobile; bagnole; tire; caisse come to mind without much effort of recall. Only voiture and automobile are included in the present book, which seems surprising when bagnole is now so widespread. Presumably this is a case of the free-association issue referred to above, since the author has made no prior decision to exclude terms on grounds of their informality or even taboo value. Roget has the obvious advantage of the cumulative effect of its many editions, whereby gaps are presumably filled in gradually. The author of the present work had no such previous work to build on, although one obvious though laborious way in could have been to follow standard practice by doing a quasi-translation, in this case of a French monolingual thesaurus. As it is, there are some rather glaring gaps here; the short section on computing has the obvious logiciel, and also ludiciel; if the latter, why not the French terms for 'freeware' and 'shareware'? Because the book is aimed at younger readers? A more serious gap results from the exclusion of 'salle' from a discussion of the various terms for rooms in houses: very surprising, in view of the difficulties that learners notoriously experience in distinguishing between salle, pièce and chambre. I suggested above that the gaps in this book may be due to an emphasis on intensive rather than extensive coverage, prompted by the book's pedagogical aim. This may be true, but there is also over-extension here: why include verb tables in a book designed for intermediate/advanced learners? All of the latest editions of the medium-sized, one-volume bilingual dictionaries like Collins-Robert and Oxford-Hachette now have sections on French correspondence; do we really need another add-on section in a book whose essential purpose is quite different, especially when books entirely devoted to French correspondence and other text-types are available? Against the foregoing, the positive features of this book are numerous. The layout and typeface are extremely attractive, and the multiple use of tables of contents and indexes make navigation very easy. An unusual feature, and a good idea, is the use of line drawings to reinforce definitions of highly culture-specific items like cartable and Minitel. Numbers after verbs direct the reader to the relevant paradigm in the verb tables. Locutions and idioms employing the items in a given semantic field are listed in the same section with the items. Despite some gaps, this book serves its essential purpose: to increase the expressive powers of learners of French by enhancing their ability to manipulate lexical relations, most notably synomymy. Subsequent editions of the book should build on the present base; in the meantime, I would question whether this book will offer a great deal to its purported target of advanced learners. It deserves to do well in the niche into which it settles.