Dictionary Review

The Wordtree®

Author: Henry C. Burger

ISBN: 0-936312-00-9

Publisher: The Wordtree®, 10876 Bradshaw, Overland Park, KS 66210. Tel: 913/469-1010

Date of publication: 1984

Price: $ 149.00

· Number of pages/entries: 380/25,000 categories; 250,000 word-concepts. The adopted font and pagination pack in 380 pages the equivalent of 1,755 standard pages.

· Quality of paper & print: 8 1/2" x 11" oversized acid free paper. Columnar text. Miniaturized printing.

· Typeface: [T]he smallest font that can comfortably be read by the unaided eye.

· Quality of binding: Hardbound, stitched.

· Readability: The book is hard on the eye, due to its extremely compact layout. Its presentation probably represents the best possible compromise that can be achieved between manageable volume size and enormous wealth of content.

· Convenience of look-up: This reference is so revolutionary in its approach that some study is required. At the beginning, do not expect to use it without a little effort. It's worth it!

· Grammatical information: Grammar is not the interpretative key. Some 90,000 words are dedicated to the explanation of the volume's uses and purposes and to the listing of the references cited.

· Contextual and encyclopedic information: This is an encyclopedia!

Mr. Burger's work is quite difficult to describe. It is a gigantic effort to systematize the English language according to an evolutionary taxonomy of meanings ("cladistics"), which juxtaposes causes and effects. A traditional thesaurus lists synonyms and antonyms in alphabetic order. Wordtree is the periodic table of the elements of the language.


Dr. Bob Dixon, the leading authority on Australian languages, noted in his "Searching for Aboriginal Languages" that "... the verbs of any language fall into two types - let's call them «nuclear» and «non-nuclear». The nuclear verbs are the most frequently-occurring items and have wide, general meanings – like «give» and «tell» and «look». Nuclear verbs could not generally be defined in terms of other verbs.

Non-nuclear verbs on the other hand, are more specialized and could be defined in terms of a nuclear item. So stare would be non-nuclear in English, and could be defined as look hard." (pages 192-3, University of Queensland Press, 1984).


It is in this context that I welcome The Wordtree as the first systematic attempt to organize the English language in terms of nuclearity, branching and diversification. This work allows a two-way research from the simple to the complex and vice versa (as well as from the known to the unknown), clarifying at each turn the nuclear linkage of meaning typical of non-nuclear verbs, all of it in two words.


The emphasis is on to be verbs, transitive verbs only (actemes) - which are defined as "environment-changing words", the connection between "an agent and its environmental impact". This sensitivity toward a technolet or semantic definitions which are technically oriented/produced fully justifies the Author's claim that The Wordtree is an "engineering manual" of the language. Such a choice allows the introduction of more neologisms and verbalized nouns than I dreamed existed. Considering the state of affairs in our profession, this aspect alone deserves the highest praise.


But let's see how to use the Wordtree at a very basic level. First of all, it is organized in three parts. The first part presents the user's instructions and the linguistic documentation. Part II arranges the transitives according to hierarchical structures, and the third section indicized the verbs in alphabetic order.


Let's say that we want to know the meaning of TO BRUN. On page 211 (Index) we find that TO BRUN corresponds to the verbs TO BLOAD & ITERATE. This definition is followed by a number (16361) which refers to the Hierarchy, and a reference code (Nl359-45). We also find another meaning of TO BRUN, which together with TO REMINISCE means TO PEEK.


At this point, several avenues of inquiry are open. We can start to check the context in which TO BRUN was found. To do so, we consult Chapter XI, which lists the sources by progressive number. There, on page 189, we discover that TO BRUN was used with the suggested meaning on page 45 of "Screenwriter II Reference Manual" by H. E. Brawley Jr. and E. T. Rice.


If we want to follow the branches in search of a wider definition of the meaning, we should search TO BLOAD and TO REMINISCE. The former is expressed as TO DOWNLOAD & ACCESS (Apple 11 DOS Manual). The latter's main meaning is TO ECPHORIZE & SUSCITATE. At this point, it is clear how the branching increases geometrically.

If we prefer to search for the main acteme, we should go to the Hierarchy section, indexed by the number (in our case, 16361). On page 161 we find that the superacteme, our nuclear verb, is TO BLOAD and that its synonym is TO RUN. The hierarchy shows two related meanings expressed by the transitives TO GENER = TO BLOAD & COPUTERPROCESS, and TO TAPELOAD = TO TAPERECORD & BLOAD. In addition, we can find a list of derivatives, synonyms (both nouns and verbs) and in most cases (unfortunately not in our example) the antonyms.


I have chosen TO BLOAD for reasons of economy of presentation (and poor eyesight), but if we look for "meatier verbs, the listing and branching can go on and on, almost ad libitum.


In conclusion, The Wordtree is the most updated thesaurus money can buy and much more. It's a completely novel approach to semantic analysis which unifies the fields of lexicography, linguistics, anthropology and sociology. Don't be distracted by the complexity of this work. It's fairly simple to use and yields consistent results. No wonder it was 27 years in the making!