A truly worthwhile application is to become accessible soon

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

If you're into words, you're always on the lookout for the best and the most decent vocabulary titles, word games, puzzles, and, last but not least, dictionaries. And you might want to take your treasury of words with you -- regardless of the OS you use. A good dictionary is the bread and butter of every logophile and having access to what many scholars deem authoritative is of utmost importance.

Ever since I purchased my iPhone 4S, I started looking for an accessible dictionary. Needless to say, accessibility was just one measure -- I was trying to pinpoint venerable dictionaries from respectable publishers (anything Oxford, Longman, Wepster, and so forth). Oh, and did I mention the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language? At the end of the day, the road was full of turns and twists.

In my quest I decided to go on a dictionary spree. I purchased New Oxford American Dictionary ($29.99), Dictionary.com - Dictionary & Thesaurus - No Ads ($2.99), WordWeb (free), English Thesaurus ($1.99), Advanced English Dictionary & Thesaurus ($0.99), and Concise English Dictionary & Thesaurus ($0.99). I wasn't insane -- I could have tried many more dictionaries before throwing in the proverbial App Store towel.

On the face of it, all of these dictionaries are perfectly accessible: Voiceover reads all of their controls and they can be navigated easily. However, all of them with the exception of the meager Advanced English Dictionary & Thesaurus ($0.99) suffer from what I call "excessive hyperlinking syndrome" -- check the app description for one of those dictionaries for more on that. In short, their definition entries consist of words which are linked to one another, thereby forcing VoiceOver to announce the word, "link," as it reaches each and every word! This means we can't listen to definitions as natural sentences and can't navigate around text on a sentence/control or definition basis -- only word navigation via the Rotor is supported. This hyperlinking is excellent for sighted users and they can easily look up words inside definitions, but just imagine how excrutiating it is for us -- VoiceOver users.

As I was jaded and wanted to put an end to my dictionary expedition, I decided to try my all-time favorite dictionary -- American Heritage® Dictionary — 5th Edition ($24.99 in-app purchase). My hunch was that it was plagued by the very same pestering problem. However, while my guess was correct, I was lucky enough to have contacted Enfour's support before my purchase. It's worth mentioning that it wasn't possible to test the dictionary without making the in-app purchase first. Anyway, having heard about that VoiceOver issue, they confirmed the inevitable. Sure I was frustrated, but that wasn't the end of my dictionary hunt.

Since Enfour offers a wide range of reference titles from big publishers in the field (they arguably have the best American and British dictionaries on the App Store), I was surprisingly told that they take accessibility seriously and that they'll make the American heritage Dictionary 5th Edition, which was published and released less than a year ago, accessible. To cut a long story short, I was even given a code which enabled me to test the app and provided feedback for that future accessible release. That goes back to some months ago and I know that they're now working on the first accessible release. While no timeline has been specified, I think that shouldn't take long before we can see that gem on the App Store. The nice point about AHD 5 is that it also provides offline access to all audio pronunciations -- it's a +500MB app. It also offers all front/back materials and indices -- something which is yet to be seen in other competing dictionaries.

Now before you ask, I'm aware of the built-in dictionary in iOS 5. It works well with VoiceOver, but it's very limited:

  • It works only if you select a word via the Rotor and then select Define from the Rotor edit options, meaning you can't type words into it,
  • Not all applications allow for the easy selection of words,
  • It's actually the abridged edition of New Oxford American Dictionary, offering definitions without notes on synonyms and pronunciations,
  • It doesn't provide audio pronunciations -- an extra feature for many word lovers, and
  • It doesn't have many of the sharing/bookmarking/studying tools a standard dictionary app offers.

So stay tuned for more on the first honorable accessible dictionary on the App Store -- courtesy of Enfour. Oh, I should also tell you that I could redeem my most expensive dictionary purchase: NOAD. Lucky me!

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#1 Older versions of some of these dictionaries work better with VO

The trend to add more links to dictionary app entries has increased with time. The older versions of the Dictionary.com app didn't suffer from this problem, and also let you access pronunciation. I simply stopped updating this app once this happened. The iPad version survived a little longer before succumbing. It's true that we could do with a higher level dictionary. Personally, I'd like to see review entries for dictionaries in languages other than English.

#2 Bilingual and foreign dictionaries

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hi Esther, The Dictionary.com app is quite reliable -- its database is based on that of the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. It's not brand-new, but is quite venerable anyway -- I use it on my PC alongside AHD 4 (not 5). I wish I could also have access to that old release which you're using! As for bilingual and foreign dictionaries, they abound on the App Store; however, as I'm almost sure most of them suffer from that hyperlinking issue, so far I haven't ventured out to purchase them. I'm especially interested in French-to-French and English-to-French ones -- not that my French is perfect, but it would be good to have a reliable French dictionary around. Back to the subject of English dictionaries, it's worth mentioning that American Heritage Dictionary 5 is now available for iOS only. AHD 4 had a Windows app, but it's no longer the case. Of course, it also has an Android app developed by the same company, but it hasn't been updated for quite some time and many of its features require internet access -- unlike the iOS counterpart -- despite having the same price. If one purchases the hardcopy of AHD 5, they can also grab either the stable and properly updated iOS app or the older Android app free of charge via the provided code. The iOS app is updated on a monthly or bimonthly basis.

#3 Word Reference

Well, there's Word Reference, a multilingual dictionary that gives you access to definitions and in some circumstances, to other features. Words need to be written in one language in order for definitions to appear in another. You can define words, look up synonyms, and conjugate verbs, but some of those options are applicable in only some languages. English and Spanish include all three options, which makes it easier for anyone studying the two. From what I deduced, the website has French conjugations, but unfortunately you can't search for definitions in only French. however, you can define words from English to French and from French to English. A Word Reference app is also available in the app store, and the description mentions that it uses the online form of the dictionary for every task. It's rated five stars, which tells me that users are very happy with its performance. Although I'm not entirely certain about its accessibility, a friend of mine who's legally blind has it on her device. It's not a perfect solution by any means, but it can be pretty useful for what it does. If you want to learn French, there's the Radio Lingua Network, which has lessons in French and other numerous languages. The presentation is done in audio, and each lesson can be obtained from their website or from iTunes. Good luck with trying to increase your language proficiency!

#4 Minor error

I'd like to amend a statement that I made earlier: All three options (defining words, looking up synonyms, and conjugating verbs) can be done only within the Spanish category. In English, you are able to define words and look up synonyms, nothing else. Sorry about that.

#5 Thanks, Amir, for all of Your Work on This

I'll definitely purchase the accessible ADH5 as soon as it comes out, and I'm also excited about other accessible reference titles which might also be forthcoming from this developer. It's really a shame that we don't have a trial option on apps or a rental or something similar which would enable us to check for accessibility before purchase. You don't care so much when the app is $.99, but you become a lot more hesitant when the app is $30 or more. As a rule of thumb, I usually don't buy the app unless someone has mentioned it here on applevis. We should also remember to financially support this site as well to whatever extent each of us can. Being able to share knowledtge of this kind about apps among voiceover users greatly enhances the utility of our iOS devices. Scott

#6 French monolingual dictionary app

Hi Amir, So far, the best suggestion I have for a French-to-French dictionary app is Dictionnaire by Samuel De Backer ($1.99). But this uses an Internet connection, since it is an interface to the web based online French dictionary TLFi (Trésor de la langue français informatisé) from the "Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales" at http://www.cnrtl.fr/ Since this is a monolingual French dictionary and requires Internet access, it probably isn't of interest to most visitors to this site. However, this dictionary features extensive entries for definitions, etymology, synonyms, and antonyms, without the dreaded "link" announcement interfering with the content. You can type unaccented letters into the search, and select your result from the filtered list of matches. Sorry not to have better suggestions.