This game is gonna have a dictionary. No way around it. For languages that use the Latin alphabet, this is pretty easy. You just go through the words in alphabetical order. The only thing you might have to worry about is if your language doesn’t have standardized spelling. But if you don’t use an alphabet, this can be tricky. I’ll refer to Chinese as usual as my primary influence.
The oldest Chinese dictionary was not a dictionary per se. It was more like an encyclopedia, which categorized words by subject and explained them in the context of passages from classical texts in which they were used. This was the Erya, thought to mean something like “approaching the proper”, written approximately 2300 years ago. For several hundred years, it was the definitive reference for interpreting literature.
It wasn’t until the early second century that a proper dictionary was made. The Shuowen Jiezi was the first Chinese dictionary that organized words by how they were written – although in Chinese, as I’ve probably said before, how something is written and what it means are often related. The author, Xu Shen, identified 540 bushou, literally meaning “section headers” but in modern contexts usually translated as “radicals”, which Chinese characters were built on. These special components usually suggested either the meaning or the pronunciation of the word. Each entry included a homophone, a synonym, and an explanation of the “spelling” of the word.
Of course, 540 is an awful lot, and Xu Shen’s choice of radicals probably had more to do with astrology and mysticism than objective analysis of Chinese writing. Over the course of many centuries, this number was whittled down to 214 by 1615 with the release of the Ming Dynasty Zihui (lit. “lexicon”), but its 214 radicals became known as the Kangxi radicals for the more well-known and absolutely massive Kangxi Dictionary released 101 years later, in turn named for the very popular and long-lived Kangxi Emperor. The Kangxi Dictionary is essentially the basis for Traditional Chinese dictionaries to this day.
However, things have changed. The default in Chinese literature has shifted from Classical Chinese to the vernacular, leading to different definitions of the same words (in the same way that “brave” in Shakespeare’s “brave new world” does not mean “courageous”), as well as proper definitions of words and not merely synonyms. With the modernization of China, there was also a serious movement to abolish Chinese writing and replace it with a phonetic system. While these phonetic systems didn’t take over, they became useful for other reasons, such as in teaching writing to children, and so pinyin, which uses the Latin alphabet, became standard in China, and zhuyin, a system based on Japanese kana as well as ancient Chinese characters, became standard in Taiwan. These are the modern pronunciation keys which have supplanted homophones.
And you might ask, “if they wound up using alphabets anyway, why don’t they just sort the words in their dictionaries alphabetically now?” And the answer is, they thought of that, and you can find dictionaries like that. However, if you’re reading something, especially a classical text, it’s not obvious how a word is meant to be pronounced, and if you don’t know how it’s pronounced, you can’t look it up alphabetically. So you need to look it up by radical.
I was talking to the person who’s doing the game’s dictionary, and she asked me about what the entries for the words would look like. But I never really intended on having an entry for each word, rather I would have an entry for each symbol, with words and names starting with that symbol falling under that entry. This struck me as the best way to organize a small vocabulary.
The header will be the symbol with its English name, which will be based on its geometric significance (e.g. “trapezoid”, “Pythagorean theorem”), followed by a definition. Then there will be a list of multiple-symbol words which start with the symbol with their definitions. Then sample sentences. And as I mentioned on the Kickstarter, dictionary pages may be accessed by right-clicking on any symbol on the computer screen that you want to look up. And of course there’s no need for a pronunciation keys because you’re only learning to read the language, not to speak it – part of what makes it easier to learn than a real language.
Also, I passed over this because I didn’t want to ramble about Chinese for too long, but actually for most of Chinese history, words didn’t have homophones as a pronunciation guide in dictionaries, but rather used a system called fanqie. You see, Chinese syllables traditionally aren’t divided into consonants and vowels as in Western languages, but “initials” and “finals”, with the initial being an optional consonant sound at the beginning of the syllable, and the final being everything else – the rhyming sound of the syllable. In fanqie, you would write two characters to clarify the pronunciation of a third: the first would have the same initial, and the second would have the same final. So, for example, 红, meaning red, pronounced hóng, has an initial of h and a final of óng. So I could write fanqie for it as 和同, 和 pronounced hé and 同 pronounced tóng. Side note: 红 actually has a phonetic component built-in: 工, meaning work, pronounced gōng today, but probably pronounced more like 红 thousands of years ago. You might see the “ong” and think they rhyme, but the tone is different, as indicated by the accent marks, and so they don’t really “rhyme” to native speaker’s ears – although it would probably sound fine in a pop song.