Oral societies do not have dictionaries. A dictionary is more than a book of meanings for existing words in a language. It is a kind of artificial memory bank which limits the usefulness of human memory. Human action is still required to rewrite the dictionaries every generation, but a machine could easily do that. It’s the words that matter.
Oral societies are concerned with preserving balance and rubbing out things which are not relevant to present situations. They are homeostatic. Oral memory is homeostatic, and so is language in an oral environment. Dictionaries are the opposite of that. They are products of a literate culture. They track present meanings, but they add those on top of previous ones, many of these no longer relevant. When irrelevance hits a critical level, we say the word is outdated, archaic, démodé, defunct. And we forget about it. It’s what happened to words like ‘beldam’, ‘camelopard’, ‘leman’ or ‘tantivy’.
It takes time and patience to hit that level of irrelevance and say a word is archaic. Oral societies are not that patient. Words sink into oblivion as soon as they hit irrelevance, which means as soon as they cease to be used in speech (which is all there is). It is an organic process which happens without anyone noticing it. And why would anyone notice something which isn’t even there?
Here’s a challenge I’d like to lay on the table. The idea is to design a dictionary able to track word usage online, in print, in verbal conversations, in any language, in real time, and then build a highly reactive and interactive wordlist featuring only words which are being used at any given moment. Untransacted words wouldn’t appear at all in those lists. The oral dictionary would then be able to compare word usage against existing words in conventional dictionaries. What would our imaginary be if fewer words were available to us, and those which were available would be situational, describing immediate circumstances?