Making a dictionary for your own language

| Edited & updated, Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude, 22 January 2022

‘Noken Simuk – Smoking forbidden. Leave the matchbox and inflammable matches inside the box’ (Robert Eklund)

First published in The National, February 2018

PORT MORESBY – All of us probably remember dictionaries from when we were at school.

They had a long list of English words and explained them in English. This is a monolingual dictionary. Words and explanations in the same language.

Another type of dictionary is bilingual, where the explanations of words are given in another language.

This type is especially useful when we’re learning another language.

For example, a Tok Pisin-English dictionary gives Tok Pisin explanations of English words and English translations or explanations for Tok Pisin words.

maski = never mind, forget about it

forget it = maski

An example is the Oxford Tok Pisin-English Dictionary I edited with Susan Baing, Brian Deutrom and Russell Jackson some years ago

So bilingual dictionary like this is useful for foreigners learning Tok Pisin or Papua New Guineans learning English.

Bilingual dictionaries are also useful for documenting a language that might otherwise not be written at all or only partially.

This is especially so when a language is in danger of disappearing or when difficult terminology, such as plant and animal names or expressions related to customary practices, are no longer being learned by young people.

Putting these important words in a dictionary preserves them for future generations and can be retrieved long after a community has forgotten them.

These days many PNG languages are in danger of disappearing as young people prefer to use Tok Pisin or English.

Even if a language is not totally disappearing, it is often the case that only a simple form of the language is used, and the older and more complex words and grammar are disappearing.

I omce received a letter from a young Tolai who was worried about this happening in his Kuanua language.

He said that, while his grandparents taught him how to speak Kuanua using complicated vocabulary and eloquent oratory, most of the young people spoke it in a simple way, taking many words from Tok Pisin and English.

He was worried about this and that Kuanua, a very rich language, would be passed on in a diminished form to future generations.

Of course, a dictionary alone will not reverse this trend. After all, there are dictionaries for many dead languages that are no longer spoken.

But by recording the important words in a dictionary, people who want to learn them in the future will have a resource they can refer to.

So how can someone with no linguistic training do this?

The first step is to check online or in a library to see if there is already some kind of dictionary for your language.

One good place to start on the internet is the Ethnologue website of international languages, which is partly subscriber-driven but still offers much information free of charge.

Today, for example, the website featured the Haruai language of Madang, spoken by about 2,000 people and still in good shape.

Apparently speeches and sermons by visiting outsiders are always translated into Haruai.

There is also OLAC, the Open Language Archives Community, an international partnership that is creating a worldwide virtual library of language resources.

If your language does not have a dictionary, or if there’s a dictionary available but you feel it needs additional data, you can start to do this yourself.

Even if you do not have linguistic training, you can make word lists with English or Tok Pisin explanations and translations.

It is especially important to have lists in your language related to the environment, customary beliefs and practices, and oral history, as this knowledge is disappearing quickly.

Another resource is Wiktionary, an online collaborative tool similar to Wikipedia, that allows anyone to create, add to or edit a dictionary in any language.

Although learning how to use Wiktionary does take a bit of time and patience, once you know how to edit and add entries, people anywhere can add to the dictionary.

Several years ago, I worked with Motu-speaking colleagues at Divine Word University to see how this could work for their language. We set up a Motu Wiktionary Dictionary and wrote a number of entries for people to see.

It hasn’t been touched for a while but you can check it out (and even add to it) here.

An advantage of publishing online with Wiktionary is that the site can be accessed by anyone with a smartphone and, because you do not need to wait until you have a finished product to publish, people can comment on the dictionary as it is being written.

It then becomes a true community effort, in keeping with Melanesian custom.

If you want to learn more about dictionaries, SIL PNG offers lexicography (dictionary-writing) workshops from time to time.

SIL has also written several guides about dictionary writing and compilation as well as software to use on a laptop to make dictionary compilation and organisation easier.

More importantly, they have a website for public use, link to it here, where people with very little linguistic and computer expertise can produce an online dictionary for their own language.

Like Wiktionary, this is organised so that it can be a community project, with people in different places contributing at different times.

Ideally, provincial and national governments would support the documentation of PNG languages and indigenous knowledge through the compilation and publication of dictionaries.

Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. It is ironic that governments in the still colonised parts of Melanesia–Indonesian Papua and French New Caledonia–do much more to support tok ples dictionary compilation than the governments of independent Melanesian countries.

But in the absence of government support, there is still much valuable work that individuals and groups here can do on their own to preserve the words in their languages through dictionaries.

Professor Craig Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute at James Cook University in Queensland

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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