I am looking currently at Tibetan definitions from THLib and they appear really detailed in comparison to what I'm used to seeing on places like vocabulary.com or oxford definitions on Google. For example (random subset):

  • འཇུག: enter; engage; apply; usher (into); reaches; descend; come back to; alight; fathoms; enter on; go into; views; step on; moves into; assail; manifestly entering into the clear light; behave like a child; related as a pervader; definitely enter from the path of accumulation; infuse, insert; actual usage of a term, collection engage; to go into, enter, participate; follow [the path, doctrine], to get oneself involved, engaged in, occupied with, steady pursuance; put, fill in, stuff, to put into, to go into, put in, insert; let, allow, permit; make, force; put under, bring under [power, control] stuff, bring into, practice, enjoin, permit, make, cause, enable, establish, initiate, in, perceive, occupied with, pervade, permeate, express [through the three kayas etc], proceed, function, act, start working, entertain, engagement, application, involvement, action, functioning, 'perception', manifestation, incarnation, continuity [of cause and effect]; completely permeates about compassion; to make, cause, enable; the consciousness engaged in an object; induce; plant, fix, pitch, put in, insert into, recruit; let, allow; the act of entering into a clear light; to make, cause, enable.
  • ཕྱིན: later, afterwards, to pass, cross, go through; arriving; that which is to arrive, what is subsequent, outside
  • དབྱིངས: Realm; objective sphere of Total Knowledge; expanse; sphere; element; space; basic element; world; dimension; ultimate sphere; field of reality; evidence of being; meaning continuum.
  • མངོན: actualize; manifest; conceive; come under the concept of; becomes/is conceivable; have a conception of; to see, envision, observe, be visible, to observe, to show, manifest, display, expose, reveal, appear, be evident, apparent, manifestation; to become visible / evident, appear; to show, demonstrate; realize, envision, to become visible, evident, to appear, it seemed to me.
  • གཟུང་བ: object; thing grasped; held, interest, inclination, bias, object, the 'held', perceived, apprehended, grasped, to objectify, objectification; (objective) perception/ grasping; to appreciate; ft. of འཛིན་པ་; object, that which is apprehended, [grahya]; to be regarded; apprehended; perception (of objects); to reify/ perceive/ conceive of as/ to be an object; cling, objectify, take as, the apprehended, catch, clutch, grapple, harness, maintain, SA 'dzin pa, interest, inclination, bias, attribute, capacity, that which is apprehended, to visualize, to reify, conceives;
  • འགའ: some, a few, several; how is there time to do anything else?; place in Tibet
  • འོན: ston pa; byin pa; small measure
  • སྩལ་པ: to bestow
  • རྫོགས: complete; end; finish; perfect; fulfill; terminate; perfect; perfectly contained; finishing; completion; to be exhausted; finished; out of; perfectly comprehends; consummated; will completely manifest; is perfected; perfectly
  • བརྟེན: depend; rely; resort to; support; supported; in dependence on; leans on; based upon; inhabiting; dwell on in the mind; dependent on; insured; due to, because of, on account of; the 'based', 'supported', to lean, rely, depend on, pass, establish, enjoy, satisfy, by means of, based, relying, dependent on, because, through, flanked by, clasping, trustworthy, solidity;
  • ཡང་དག: real; authentic; correct; reality; right; in the right way; positive; genuine; actual; true; perfect; proper; indeed; completely; pure like space
  • བྱེ་བྲག: instance; particularity; detail; special; particular; region; difference; distinguished; more distinguished; multiplicity; manifoldness; differentiation; specific constitution; variety; kind; way; distinction; dissention; breaking up; divided; differenced; division; the one ... the other; distinctive (goal); a phenomenon that has the type which engages it as a pervader; a phenomenon which has a type by which it is subsumed; a shrine object; difference, diversity, instance, a certain, different kinds, aspect, particular, particularity, specific, special, variety; individuation; detail, case, technique; vibhasa (a text), difference, special form, particularity, special, diversity, categories, different, specific;

A lot of them are just basically a list of English terms:

  • དབྱེ་བ: divide; separate; open; differentiate; to divide; division; distinguish; discriminate; conflict; quarrel; battle; separation; distinction; dissention; breaking up; break; differentiation; divided; differences; the one ... the other; classify; division, classification, to classify; classification, subdivision, division, bias, opening, distinction, part, parting, partition, section, class, species; (arbitrary) division/ distinction; to divide/ analyze/ classify/ differentiate; to differentiate/ distinguish/ analyze/ divide; analysis/ differentiation; isc. to distil; differentiation, schools, divisions, distinguish, classification, contrast, distinction, anything made distinct or classified; kind, class, species, plain, expanse, extent.

In English, like in vocabulary.com, what you typically find is a set of senses (definitions) which are written in prose, rather than lists of translated words. But maybe this is just the result of going from one language and writing the definitions in English? You get to benefit from the similarity-function sort of thing, across languages, so you can just state the words it's similar to?

Would it not be better to write out prose definitions instead? That is basically what I'm wondering. I'm just a bit confused at how much content there is in each one of these definitions, its hard to really get a sense of the meaning from all this.

Basically, how is it different when writing definitions in your native language for languages outside your main language? Is it a slightly different process in some ways? Does it boil down to often just listen a field of terms in your native language and that's it? Instead of writing prose definitions?

Chinese definitions are often like this too (another of the few examples I know so far).

  • They look more like glosses than actual definitions
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 3:42
  • There are monolingual and bilingual dictionaries. Your post is a bilingual one.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 18:00

2 Answers 2


The main difference is not the native language of the author, but the purpose of the dictionary. For example, Webster's dictionary and the OED are similar but still different given that the OED is more detailed and historically oriented: still, both subdivide words according to different senses (semantic nuances etc), and they give illustrative examples. Users are typically fluent in the language. Some dictionaries are bilingual translation tools, thus a Tibetan-English or Sanskrit-English dictionary – Monier-Williams' Sanskrit dictionary is not intended for the total novice, though it can be used in Sanskrit 101. In the case of dead languages, the author is obviously not a native speaker, but we can assume they are pretty good in the language. The extant monolingual Logoori dictionary is a noble first attempt to try to explain words not as translations from English, but with reference to other words in the language. The definition of "milk", in my opinion, suffices to lead the reader to conclude what the word (amaveele) refers to, by mentioning "food", "drink", "livestock" or "human babies", also calves and kids/lambs. A non-native would have written something similar in a monolingual Logoori dictionary, because the structure is designed for a particular purpose.

There are also field-linguist dictionaries, compiled by people who have worked for years on a language but are not fluent, but they are the only people working to compile a dictionary of the language. At the low end of that continuum, we often refer to the compiled object as a "wordlist". At the upper end, you may find an extensive dictionary with many illustrative examples, i.e. sentences from the text corpus which illustrate the meaning of Yup'ik caanguaqe-

An obvious difference between writing a dictionary of a language that you are fluent in and one that you have worked on to some extent is that in the latter case, you probably don't know all of the ways that a word is actually used. That's also true to some extent in one's native language, but it's more noticeable when you're dealing with a language that you only know partially.

The Tibetan example would be better called a "bilingual thesaurus", and might be useful in devising a translation network where འཇུག is more associated with the English translation "descend" in the context X__Y but "engage" in the context Z__Q.


This is generally a feature of dictionaries for most languages that are far-removed linguistically (genetically or in terms of loanwords) from the language of publication / collation. This is especially exacerbated with the East Asian and South Asian Sprachbünde, where there are both:

  • 'Networks of polysemy' that do not correspond with the publication language: the various 'meanings' of open/divide for དབྱེ simply 'feel' like one word family, similar to what does in Chinese. A contrasting pair of examples:

    • 店開了 'the shop/store is open' matches the semantics of English in general, and so does ཚོང་ཁང་ཕྱེས་པ་རེད. This is despite the syntax and morphology being quite different (adjective after copula in English, verb with change of state in Chinese, and past-tense verb in noun form with non-egophoric 'assertive' particle in Tibetan).
    • (電)燈開了 (lit. 'the light opened') differs from English 'the light is on', with the literal phrasing being strongly marked as non-native in English. The Tibetan is also different, with its use of the verb སྤར, best thought of as to grasp, and also to raise.
    • As a corollary to this, East Asia has many isolating and agglutinative languages, where one root word can have many different syntactic functions. Many of these functions do not correspond neatly to Western European syntactic categories, so a broad coverage of definition words is needed to 'map it out'.
  • Long literary histories (over a millennium) with substantial semantic shifts documented, for which dictionaries are expected to cater. Tibetan dictionaries, like Chinese and Sanskrit dictionaries, cannot really afford to ignore the classicisms in the language.

Specifically, the THLib entry for དབྱེ་བ has 10 separate dictionaries, of which 6 are English. With this number of dictionaries, it ought to have substantial duplication - we expect dictionaries to agree!

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