Mac OS X’s Dictionary program is a handy tool; in Leopard, it lets you quickly search the New Oxford American Dictionary, Apple Dictionary, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, and Wikipedia for definitions and information about words and topics. But if you’re learning a language, or if you’re a fan of word puzzles and games, Ultralingua’s Ultralingua 7.0.1 ($35; additional dictionary sets $35 each, or $25 each for three or more) is a compelling alternative.
Before I cover Ultralingua's features, it's worth noting how the program is sold. When you first buy Ultralingua, you choose a dictionary; this gets you the program and the chosen dictionary. You can later purchase additional dictionaries and access them from within the same program window. The list of available dictionaries includes an English dictionary and thesaurus, a French dictionary and thesaurus, a French-English medical dictionary, and 13 different translation dictionaries. I tested a “Euro Pack” that included the English Dictionary & Thesaurus as well as French-English, Spanish-English, German-English, Italian-English, and Portuguese-English translation dictionaries.
Ultralingua’s window displays its various tools and options in a list on the left. Here’s a rundown of these options:
Dictionary: Like OS X’s Dictionary program, you simply begin typing a word, or a fragment of a word, in the search field and Ultralingua provides a live-updated list of matches. You can even search for any form of a word. However, unlike the OS X version, Ultralingua’s list also includes related or similar words, rather than just matching ones—useful if you’re unsure of the exact spelling of a word, or if you’re just learning a language and you mistakenly type a word that’s spelled similarly to the one you really want. (If you type in a word that doesn’t exist and has no obvious similarities, Ultralingua offers a few logical alternatives.) Clicking on any word that appears in the definition list will immediately take you to the entry for that word.
If you have another language dictionary installed, you also use the Dictionary module for basic word translations. Choose the other dictionary from the dictionary pop-up menu (which reads English Dictionary in the screenshot above) and then type the word you want to translate; you’ll see the exact translation, as well as a long list of similar words and phrases that include the word.
Another unique feature of Ultralingua’s Dictionary module is that you can easily add your own words to any dictionary. Just click on the plus (+) button, enter your word and definition, and then, from the pop-up menu, choose the part of speech or type of word. (To edit or delete a custom definition, you search for it and then click on the buttons for editing and deleting that appear next to the word in the results listing.)
If you're curious where Ultralingua’s dictionaries come from, the developer states that they're “compiled by a team of language professionals, including linguists, university professors, and professional translators.”
Conjugations: For those just learning English or another language, the Conjugations tool can be very useful. Type in a verb and Ultralingua conjugates it for you; choose the tense from the pop-up menu on the right to view the conjugation for that tense. This feature works for any language dictionary you’ve purchased, making it also useful for English speakers learning another language.
Number: Type in any number and Ultralingua displays the textual version of that number; for example, 152 is converted to one hundred (and) fifty-two. If you have non-English language dictionaries installed, you can also see the output in another language; for example, Ultralingua tells me that 152 in Portuguese is cento e cinquenta e dois.
Flashcards: This mode lets you create your own flashcards for learning words. Click on the plus (+) button to create a new flashcard, then enter the word to be learned; unlike most flash-card programs I’ve used, Ultralingua automatically fills in the definition for the word using the current dictionary. (Unfortunately, it chooses the first definition it finds, which may not be the one you want, and there’s no way to pick from among multiple definitions. However, you can modify the provided definition, or shorten it, for use on the flashcard.) You can also choose a “card” color for the card.
Clicking on the Play button on the Flashcards screen begins an attractive, full-screen “testing” mode, complete with life-size index cards. You choose which “side” of each card is shown first, whether cards are shown in order or shuffled, and whether to use all cards in the current dictionary or just selected ones. You can create a separate set of cards for each dictionary (English, German-English translations, Medical, etc.), but you can’t create multiple sets within a particular dictionary. Overall, Ultralingua’s Flashcards mode isn’t nearly as full-featured as a good flashcard program such as iFlash ( ), but it works well for basic word-learning.
Word Hunt: Designed for word-gamers, this tool lets you search for words using wildcards and other search options. For example, if you’re looking for a ten-letter word that starts with T and ends with NG, typing t???????ng displays a list of matches. (The ? character matches any single character; * matches zero or more characters; and + matches one or more characters.) You can tell Ultralingua to ignore accents and capitalization, and you can restrict your search to whole words.
This feature also works with other languages if you have additional dictionaries installed. However, in testing this, I discovered an apparent flaw in the Word Hunt feature. When I performed my example search, t???????ng, in the English dictionary, Ultralingua presented me with six results, four of which were noun/adjective pairs of two words. When I performed the same search in the English-Spanish translation dictionary, which shows English matches and their Spanish equivalents, the program displayed 12 results—only two of which were words from the English-only search. In other words, neither search was complete, and, in fact, the foreign-language dictionary provided more matches.
References: This module, which consists of two sections, Correspondence and Grammar, can be very helpful for learning a language. The Grammar section provides an index of grammar rules; click on an item in the list to view details on the topic. Included for each topic are detailed explanations, lots of examples, and links to related topics. I didn’t meticulously compare Ultralingua’s grammar guidelines to The Chicago Manual of Style, but in a brief look at several topics, they seemed to be generally accurate.
The Correspondence section includes a brief primer on the elements of a letter (salutations, closings, and the like) in the chosen language, as well as a short list of sample documents: an invitation, an employment query, a reservation confirmation, a request for assistance or service, and a resume. As with other modules, choosing a different language lets you view similar information in that language.
Internet: The Internet section of the sidebar lets you access content actually found on the Internet. Click on Translation to use Google’s translation tool for text or for a Web site; Ultralingua sends your query to the Google site, which opens in your Web browser. The Examples screen lets you perform a Google search for a phrase or expression. (I suspect this option is here mainly for convenience if you already happen to be using Ultralingua, given that it’s no different that using the Google search field in Safari or another Web browser.) The Discussions item lets you browse and post to Ultralingua’s Language Forums right from within Ultralingua.
If you’re using Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5), you can choose keyboard and mouse shortcuts that let you view, in most programs, the definition of the word under your mouse cursor. This feature works much like OS X’s built-in dictionary "bubble" (accessed by placing the mouse cursor over a word and pressing Control+Command+D). Unlike the built-in OS X version, Ultralingua’s pop-up window doesn’t follow the cursor and update in real time. However, it does let you process the word under the cursor using any installed dictionary; so, for example, you can quickly view the Spanish or German translation of that word.
Ultralingua also includes a Dashboard widget you can install using Ultralingua’s Preferences dialog; this widget offers basic Dictionary lookups and word translations.
In addition to the issue with Word Hunt searches I noted, my other big complaint about Ultralingua is that it includes very little documentation; you have to learn about its features by experimenting with them. A thorough manual or Help system would be a welcome improvement.
Still, if you work or play with words, are learning a new language, or work in a multi-lingual environment, Ultralingua is a useful alternative to OS X’s Dictionary program.
Ultralingua 7.0.1 requires Mac OS X 10.4 or later.