How do you say “texting” in Cherokee? Which letters do you use to spell words in an indigenous language that has never been written? Which words go into a dictionary, and who decides?
These were some of the questions discussed in Dr. Pamela Munro’s closing keynote address, “Documenting Native Languages: What Should We Put in the Dictionary?” The presentation was part of the Indigenous Languages Documentation and Revitalization Seminar at the 41st annual Symposium on the American Indian at NSU Friday evening.
Munro was in Tahlequah as the guest scholar for the Oklahoma Workshop on Native Languages, which took place Saturday and Sunday. She is a Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at the University of California-San Diego and the co-author, with Catherine Willmond, of the first Chicksaw language textbook, “Let’s Speak Chickasaw: Chikashshanompa’ Kilanompoli’,” winner of the 2010 Leonard Bloomfield Book Award. She has also published dictionaries and grammar books of the Mohave, Cahuilla, Kawaiisu, Wolof and San Lucas Quiavini Zapotec languages, as well as many other articles and books on languages and linguistics.
On Friday, Munro spoke about how dictionaries are created.
Dr. Brad Montgomery-Anderson, assistant professor of English at NSU and coordinator of the seminar and OWNAL, said creating a dictionary is an important step in saving a language.
“One of the first steps in language revitalization is often reassembling the language, gathering materials, and creating dictionaries and grammars,” he said. “It is not for everyone, but if you’re a linguist, it’s real exciting. And for those of you who know about the structure of Native American languages, it can often be difficult to create dictionaries for these languages.”
Munro’s presentation focused on the preliminary questions that must be answered in the beginning of a dictionary’s creation. Some questions, such as which words should be included, were obvious. Others, such as “What counts as a word?” were puzzles more likely to be enjoyed by linguists than the general dictionary user.
But words and spelling are not the only factors involved, Munro said. Human elements also face both writers and users of dictionaries, especially when it comes to dictionaries of indigenous languages spoken by few people.
“What about words that some people don’t want to see in the dictionary?” Munro asked.
“A classic category is bad words,” she said. “I’m sure lots of people in this room have had people tell you, ‘Oh, you can’t swear in our language,’ or “There are no bad words in our language.” But all languages have words to say mean things about people, to [curse] them out. And all languages have words for various parts of the body and actions that we don’t always talk about in polite company. Some people would really prefer not to see words like that in the dictionary. I’m a big fan of putting every word in the dictionary, just because it’s a word and you don’t want to lose it, but I can understand that different people might have different views about it. This is something your dictionary committee is going to have to discuss.”
On the opposite end of the argument are sacred words, which in some indigenous cultures are not meant to be shared at all times or by all people.
“You might not want those words to be in a dictionary that’s going to be on sale at Barnes & Noble,” she said. “But maybe you could make a specialized dictionary of just those words.”
And what do you do when a language has no word for a certain concept? How do you catalog the words of an ancient indigenous language spoken by few people - or no people? And who will need to know?
“I’m working with a heritage language group of people who speak a language that’s the original language of Los Angeles County, the Tongva language, which has not been spoken for way over 60 years, and we have very incomplete documentation. What we do is we try to reconstitute word and grammar patterns,” Munro said.
That means very educated guessing about words based on patterns within the language or in similar languages, if there are any. The writers of dictionaries have to let readers know, however, when this guessing has been done.
“This is a serious problem. Lots of linguists will want to look at your dictionary, too,” she said. “Maybe they’re comparing different languages of the family, or maybe they just want to learn about your language, or maybe they want to come in and help you. The problem is linguists are very picky about data, and if the data didn’t come from a native speaker, linguists in general feel that the status is not as good. So are you going to put these items in the dictionary? Well, probably you would want to use them in the dictionary, but how are you going to mark them to show that yes, our community feels these are good Tongva, and we need to use them in order to talk, but they don’t have this approved, ‘from the mouths of the native speaker’ status? It’s a serious question.”
That question - Who are our readers? - is one that faces all linguists and language experts who work on a dictionary. And the answer is changing.
Montgomery-Anderson explained: “In the past, linguists were sometimes accused of just going into a community and getting their information for the project or their dissertation or their article and leaving, but Dr. Munro is a good example of a linguist who’s really good at documenting and doing the academic stuff, but also doing community collaboration. It’s a new paradigm.”
Kelly Harper Berkson, who recently finished a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Kansas and participated in this weekend’s language revitalization workshops, agreed that Munro’s questions reflect the concerns of the current generation of linguists.
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