March 20, 2007

Two spiffy dictionary tools for Linux desktop users

Author: Dmitri Popov

Whether you're learning a foreign language or just need to look up an unknown word or phrase, a good dictionary application can come in handy. JaLingo and StarDict are two such tools. Each sports a polished GUI and a set of features that puts it among the best dictionary applications on Linux.


JaLingo is a no-frills dictionary tool that sports an easy-to-use interface, support for different dictionary formats, and a few useful features. Because JaLingo is a Java-based application, installing it is not that difficult. Download the JaLingo Setup jar file, and run the following command from the Terminal: java -jar jalingo-setup-x.x.x.jar.

You have to run this command as root if you want to install the application into the default /usr/local/jalingo directory. Once JaLingo is installed, you can launch it by running java -jar jalingo.jar.

Since JaLingo doesn't include any dictionaries, the first thing you have to do is download and install one or more dictionaries for the language you need. JaLingo supports several dictionary formats, including DSL, Mova, and SDictionary. A huge collection of dictionaries in the latter format is available through the Sdictionary Community. Here you can also find a guide on how to create your own dictionary files in the Sdictionary format, and a handy online converter to compile custom dictionaries for use with JaLingo. Besides an impressive dictionary collection, the site also offers Wikipedia databases converted into the SDictionary format, so if you fancy the idea of having Wikipedia directly on your machine, then you can download the appropriate database and install it in JaLingo. A word of caution, though: Wikipedia files are large, and it takes some time for JaLingo to process them during installation.

JaLingo - click to enlarge

Installing dictionary files in JaLingo is a breeze. Press the Settings button, then press the Add button in the Dictionaries section. Select the dictionary file you want to use and press Continue. Once JaLingo is done processing the dictionary, click the Close button, and JaLingo is ready to go.

The left pane in JaLingo's main window contains three tabs: Articles, History, and Search. To look up a word, start typing it in the search field under the Articles tab. The application automatically narrows the result set as you keep typing. Select the entry from the resulting list, and the related article appears in the right pane. The Search feature allows you to perform a full-text search through both entries and related articles, and all your searches and lookups are stored under the History tab. But that's not all. For example, the Suggest command allows you to perform a sort of similarity search. Right-click on a word in the current article or list, select Suggest, and JaLingo shows words that look or sound like the original one. You can also save the current article as an HTML page. To do this, right-click either on the word you want to save in the Article list or on the article itself in the right pane, then select the Save as command.


StarDict is another great dictionary tool that is available with many mainstream Linux distributions, which means that you can install it by using your distro's package manager. As with JaLingo, you have to install dictionaries before you actually start using StarDict. Unlike JaLingo, however, StarDict uses its own dictionary format. You can find a good selection of ready-to-use dictionaries at StarDict's Web site. The site also contains information on how to create custom dictionaries, as well as a detailed description of the dictionary format. If you plan to make your own dictionaries, make sure to download the StarDict Editor, which allows you to compile custom dictionaries.

Tip: The XDXF Web site contains a large collection of dictionaries that you can download in the StarDict format.

Installing dictionaries in StarDict is not as straightforward as the process is in JaLingo, but it's still a relatively simple procedure. Download the tarball version of the dictionary you need, unpack it either using an archive manager or the tar -xjvf dictionary.tar.bz2 command, where dictionary is the exact file name. Move the resulting archive using the command mv dictionary /usr/share/stardict/dic.

Using this technique, you can install multiple dictionaries and use StarDict's manager to manage them.

StarDict - click to enlarge

The lookup mechanism in StarDict works similar to JaLingo: as you type the word you want to look up, StarDict displays a list of possible matches from all the installed dictionaries. But StarDict doesn't limit your search to installed dictionaries: it also allows you to use several pre-defined online dictionaries, and you can even specify additional online dictionaries. To do this, press the Preferences button, select the Main window -> Search Web site, and add your search engine.

StarDict also supports fuzzy queries, which can come in handy when you don't know the exact spelling of a word. To run a fuzzy query, use a slash (/) before the search word. Another of StarDict's nifty features is Scan. Once enabled, you can select a word in virtually any application, and StarDict displays a pop-up window with the related translation.

Final word

JaLingo and StarDict are not just front ends to dictionary files. Using them, you can look up words and phrases in different resources, including Wikipedia and online dictionaries. Both applications also offer features that make them versatile tools whether you are learning a foreign language or just want to expand your horizons.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, US, German, and Danish computer magazines.

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