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Definitions

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This is a page from the Kamusi archives. The information below may be out of date, and the links may no longer be valid. Please visit kamusi.org for current information. If you know of links or information on this page that can be updated, please let us know.

A Definition is a description of a single sense of a single term, written in that term's own language.

A Definition Translation is a description of that term from that language, explained in another language.

This is complicated, so please keep reading, and also please watch the video above.

One of the most important features of Kamusi is that we provide a definition for every word in its own language.

Most dictionaries between languages provide translations, not definitions. Traditional bilingual dictionaries show that a word in Language A matches a word in Language B. Sometimes the dictionary will give a little more information, if it is essential for understanding different senses of a word. For example, a dictionary might indicate "light (visible)" and "light (not heavy)" and "light (in color)" and "light (lamp)" - just enough of an explanation to prevent total confusion.

The traditional system is not good enough for Kamusi, for two reasons:

  1. As soon as you start linking together more than two languages, you immediately lose the ability to keep track of which sense belongs to which translation. Can you look at another multilingual dictionary and tell which translation of the English word "light" in Romanian matches to which sense in a related language such as Portuguese? How about the relation from Russian to Arabic?
  2. Knowing the equivalent for a word in another language is only a small part of the information that a dictionary user really needs. Languages with a lot of resources always have monolingual dictionaries that provide definitions of their own words in their own language. If you have gone to school in English or French, you know how important it is to have a dictionary that tells you the full meaning of a word, and how useless it would be if the only thing that a dictionary told you was the translation of that word into another language.

We have designed Kamusi to overcome these problems, and having own-language definitions is an essential element. In the English example "light", we can divide that word into the specific concepts that share the letters l-i-g-h-t. Each concept is treated as a separate entry, with its own definition. When a Kamusi contributor adds a term for the same concept in their own language, they can be absolutely sure that they are matching to the exact sense of "light" that shares that meaning.

Just like words in English can have a lot of different meanings, the same can happen in any other language. For example, s-i-m-a-m-a in Swahili means both "to stop" and "to stand". So, we need to split each of those Swahili concepts into their own entries, write clear definitions for each of those concepts in its own language, and link those different concepts to their matching ideas in other languages.

Each definition should be precise enough for the reader to understand the exact meaning of the concept. However, it should not be too long (that would be an encylopedia entry, not a dictionary entry), and it should not be too short (for example, defining "light' as "lamp" would be too short, especially if the definition for "lamp" was given as "light"). Writing a perfect definition is hard work, and we do not pretend that we have mastered the art. We can only ask that contributors keep the purpose of a definition in mind, and hope that future readers will help improve definitions that don't meet the Goldilocks ideal.

What about Definition Translations? This is the opportunity for people who speak other languages to really understand the inner meaning of a word that they are trying to translate. Let's take an example. The English term "hand" has the meaning of the part of the body between the wrist and the fingertips. If you translate that definition into Swahili, a Swahili speaker will say, "Ahh, I understand what they mean by 'hand'. This is different from the word we use to translate 'hand' - we use the word 'mkono', but the definition for mkono is the part of the body from the shoulder to the fingertips." When we translate the English definition to Swahili, we translate the English concept of wrist-to-fingertips; we are NOT translating the defintion of the word "mkono". On the other hand, when we translate the Swahili definition of "mkono" into English, we are translating the Swahili concept of shoulder-to-fingertips, NOT the definition of the English word "hand".

Notice that the Definition Translation stays with the concept on the monolingual side of the dictionary. The Definition Translation in English of the Swahili term "mkono" is part of the entry for "mkono", and won't appear in search results on Kamusi if you are looking for "hand" in English, or the translation in French or Chinese or Pulaar. However, it is quite possible that we will also have Definition Translations for "mkono" into French, and Chinese, and Pulaar, all as part of the Swahili entry, to aid French and Chinese and Pulaar speakers to understand this concept when they are trying to read Swahili.

A final note regarding definitions: sometimes a great definition for a concept will be available from another source. If that source has an open license, such as Wiktionary, then you can copy the definition directly into the Definition box, provided you also copy the web address for the link into the "Definition Source URL" box. However, many open source definitions are not as good as what you could write yourself, so please think carefully before borrowing from elsewhere. Even more important, a lot of the sources you can find online are under copyright, and therefore not available to us to copy. You can use copyrighted sources for inspiration or clarity, but you cannot copy and paste their definitions. Quite seriously, please be very careful to respect all intellectual property laws when you write definitions, so that you don't get yourself or the project into trouble.

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