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Festival of Southeast Asia in Oxford – “From abaca to teh tarik: languages, dictionaries, and community building in Southeast Asia”

1100–1230, Friday 15 April 2016, L4

Kevin Fogg
University of Oxford

Southeast Asia is characterized by its immense linguistic diversity. Multilingualism is part of everyday reality for Southeast Asians, many of whom grow up speaking at least two languages and acquire one or two more during the course of their lives. Although a number of the region’s hundreds of languages and dialects are in danger of extinction, many others are used by millions of speakers, and boast oral and written traditions that date back many centuries. Also included in this linguistic melting pot is English, a former colonial tongue that is now the lingua franca that Southeast Asians use to communicate with each other and with the rest of the world.

As can be seen from recent Southeast Asian history, the considerable power of language can be used to demarcate political borders, forge national identities, and establish cultural groups. One means of harnessing this power is through the dictionary, which plays a central role in the codification and institutionalization of a language. This panel will examine how dictionaries can define, not only the words that can be found within its pages, but also the way that people think about themselves, their languages, and the speech communities to which they belong.

It will begin with presentations on two landmark dictionary projects of Oxford University Press: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Oxford Global Languages (OGL). The OED, widely regarded as the most complete historical record of English, is currently updating its coverage of Southeast Asian varieties of the language, moving away from a colonial-era bias towards exotic borrowings to a wider range of lexical innovations that more accurately reflect the way that English vocabulary is being adapted to suit the communicative needs of its speakers in the region. OGL is a new initiative that aims to make websites for digitally underrepresented languages and build online communities where native speakers can contribute to the creation of a constantly evolving living dictionary. Among the first of these websites to be launched are two of the most widely spoken Southeast Asian languages: Indonesian and Malay.

This will be followed by a panel discussion that will address the relevance of dictionaries to some of the linguistic issues affecting Southeast Asia. How can they help ensure the development of local languages even as English is maintained as a medium for regional unification and global communication? How can technology be used to create lexical resources that will enable speakers of non-dominant languages to fully participate in the digital and information revolution using their mother tongues? What impact will access to such resources have on literature, on education, and on language planning and policy in the region?


  • Danica Salazar (Oxford English Dictionary)
  • Judy Pearsall (Oxford Global Languages)
  • Goenawan Mohamad