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Why Italian monolingual dictionaries usually take complex and/or archaic examples from books instead of creating simpler examples, like the monolingual dictionaries of other languages do (eg Cambridge English dict, RAE Spanish dict, Larousse French dict, Duden German dict) ? That makes them much harder to read and understand.

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    I’d disagree with your statement. Which dictionaries are you referring to? Would usage examples in dictionaries like Hoepli, Garzanti or Sabatini Colletti look archaic to you? – Gio Sep 23 at 15:00
  • Treccani is usually referenced in this website and it seems to be the one of the most popular monolingual Italian dictionaries. I think it is a perfect example. – Alan Evangelista Sep 23 at 15:20
  • This question was partly prompted by another one where the Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana was cited, but keep in mind that it corresponds, if anything, to (the complete, huge) Oxford English Dictionary, which does not exactly eschew complex and archaic examples. One of the strengths of both OED and GDLI is exactly the possibility of reconstructing one word's history through its uses along the centuries. – DaG Sep 23 at 15:22
  • Bordering on the OT: classic English dictionaries also tended to record every last word (including typos) by Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden etc.: etymonline.com/columns/post/the-impossibility-of-a-dictionary – DaG Sep 24 at 13:31
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While, as DaG has said, this tendency has been decreasing (and probably absent from more modern dictionaries, although I still remember it quite alive in the Devoto-Oli, the dictionary I used in school), it is true that Italian dictionaries traditionally prefer to give examples from literary sources. While I cannot conclusively provide a reason for this, I think that examining the history of dictionaries might shed some light.

The first dictionary of Italian (and almost the very first monolingual dictionary in any language), is the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca. This dictionary was compiled explicitly with the intention of using it to define what the Italian language was. In fact those were years when the questione della lingua was raging. The Accademia was strongly influenced by the ideas of Lionardo Salviati, one of the great exponents of the purismo [1]. Essentially they argued that the language was perfected in the Florentine of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, and that anyone wanting to write "good" Italian should try to conform to that norm as much as possible. This was different from the "classicist" position of Pietro Bembo (who took literary quality, and not age, as the main criterion for inclusion of a text) and in strong opposition with the ideas of Vincenzo Colli and Gian Giorgio Tríssino, who argued for a norm more tied to the contemporary usage.

As a consequence in the first edition of the Vocabolario published in 1612 contained for every word at least a sentence of an author of the accepted period, to prove with certainty that the word respected the desired criteria. This turned out to be impossible, and a few posterior or not Tuscan authors were allowed on a case by case basis. However some great authors like Torquato Tasso were explicitly excluded, as insufficiently "Tuscan" in the Crusca's opinion.

The Vocabolario was a smashing success, as it was vastly superior in coverage and presentation to the word-lists of the time. However the strong Florentinism provoked numerous criticisms, and in the third edition (1692) several authors, among which Tasso, were reintroduced.

Long story short, however, even if the Florentinism was attenuated the Vocabolario's success managed to make mainstream the essentially purist criterion: a word was part of the Italian language if and only if it was used in the (approved subset of) Italian literature, and contemporary usage is no guide at all. I conjecture that the immense influence of the Vocabolario is responsible for the tendency you remarked, even in other dictionaries.


[1] This name is a bit of an anachronism, since it was attached to the position only in the nineteenth century. Still, it's what the books I read use.

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    Present-day Devoto-Oli is such just in its name (or brand); it's now actually Serianni-Trifone. :) – DaG Sep 23 at 17:46
  • @DaG I did not know that. I was referring of course to the edition available when I was in school (late 90s-early 00s), which was still curated by Devoto and Oli :). Good to know they did a new edition! – Denis Nardin Sep 23 at 18:10
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This question is very interesting, but is partially based on questionable premises.

1) Not all, and perhaps a minority of dictionaries “usually take complex and/or archaic examples from books”. Both in the past (Fanfani and Rigutini's Vocabolario italiano della lingua parlata, for instance) and today there are dictionaries that put contemporary, spoken Italian first.

Among those, there are of course works specifically addressing Italian (mostly schoolchildren) and foreign learners. But, most importantly, several major dictionaries have a strong focus on modern Italian. I'll mostly mention late Tullio De Mauro's work. The most accessible is his online dictionary; see for instance the entry fatto, which illustrates the word with usual sentences and phrases from everyday language, and news and politics language. De Mauro was a great linguist especially interested in the different levels of use of Italian words and phrases, who also edited the multi-volume Grande dizionario italiano della lingua dell’uso, which, since its very title, gives a priority to Italian as it is actually used. See also De Mauro's “vocabolario di base della lingua italiana”, a list of most frequent Italian words, coded according to their use and register.

Also – as per Gio's comment – (recent editions of) Hoepli, Garzanti, Sabatini-Coletti or Devoto-Oli have a focus on contemporary Italian (new Devoto-Oli's very subtitle is Il vocabolario dell'italiano contemporaneo).

2) On the other hand, one of the uses of dictionaries is to be able to read and study Italian literature, from before Dante to today, so they have to record those “complex and/or archaic examples” too. Especially the larger ones, such as the Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, Treccani and partly Zanichelli ones would be lacking if they didn't record rare and historical uses too.

3) Finally – but I'm sure someone else will cover better this aspect – there are historical reasons while Italian culture used to be in general somewhat more inclined towards written transmission of culture, tradition, purism and great past authors than towards present-day use, but my impression is that this is something we are overcoming now.

  • I think there are literature readers in all languages, but this phenomenon of using literary examples in monolingual dictionaries seems stronger in Italian. IMHO it is not necessary to have literary examples in a dictionary to be able to understand literature. In Brazil, we read Portuguese/Brazilian literature with some help from the minimalist definitions/examples of a Portuguese dictionary and it works fine. – Alan Evangelista Sep 23 at 15:24
  • @AlanEvangelista Have you browsed the non-Treccani dictionaries I and Gio are mentioning, before judging them all from only one? As to your HO, we'll agree to disagree. – DaG Sep 23 at 15:26
  • Yes, I have checked De Mauro's online dictionary and at first sight it seems simpler than Treccani, but still complete. I'll start using it as my first option of monolingual dictionary. Thanks for the link! I wish that more answers in this site pointed to it. I'm sure that any foreigner learning Italian has a hard time trying to read Treccani. – Alan Evangelista Sep 24 at 14:39

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