Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

April 16, 2013

Play on words: Scholar mulls entries for Native dictionary

TAHLEQUAH — 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.

 

To see the complete version of this article, subscribe to the Daily Press e-edition by following the link below.

Click here to get the entire Tahlequah Daily Press delivered every day to your home or office.

Click here to get a free trial or to subscribe to the Tahlequah Daily Press electronic edition. It's the ENTIRE newspaper (without the paper) for your computer, iPad or e-reader.

1
Text Only
Local News
  • ths-jazz-2.jpg THS jazz band gets up early to hone performance skills

    It means getting up an hour earlier, and it doesn’t count as a class, but the jazz band at Tahlequah High School enjoys the dedication of a group of enthusiastic students.
    The THS Jazz Band practices every day at 7 a.m., an hour before the start of classes. It numbers 17, and is led by Director Orien Landis.
    “They have to do this before school and they get no class credit, but we have a full band,” Landis said. “They are really excited about this.”

    April 18, 2014 2 Photos

  • Easter-basket-kid.jpg Easter traditions date back centuries

    Some Christians may lament a partial shift of focus, but a Christian holy day - perhaps the most holy of all – is this Sunday, and it will be marked with celebrations all around the world.
    The Christian holiday of Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. For centuries, the observant have fasted, reflected or done penance in the weeks leading to the holiday. But today, many also associate the holiday with the Easter bunny, candy, and kites. In 2013, Americans spent $2.1 billion on Easter candy.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Some oppose minimum wage hike; others decry strong-arming by state

    President Barack Obama and the U.S. Senate recently announced a push to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour, to $10.10. On the heels of the announcement, an initiative petition was introduced in Oklahoma City to raise the minimum wage to the suggested $10.10. If it gained 80,000 signatures, it would be put to a vote of the people.
    This legislative session, a bill passed prohibiting municipalities from setting a minimum was or vacation and sick-day requirements. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill into law earlier this week.

    April 18, 2014

  • Phone scam takes $500 from couple

    Authorities are warning Cherokee County residents to watch for a costly phone scam that recently targeted a local couple and ended in their loss of $500.
    According to sheriff’s deputies, a couple contacted authorities after losing $500 to the scam. The couple received a phone call from a man who identified himself only as “Mr. Green.” He told the couple they had won $1.5 million through Publisher’s Clearing House, but to collect the money, the couple would have to purchase a $500 money card to cover various fees.

    April 18, 2014

  • Missing local teen found dead

    The body of a missing 17-year-old boy was found in southern Cherokee County on Thursday, sheriff’s investigators said.
    Brikk Pritchett was reported missing earlier this month after disappearing on March 30, a day before his 17th birthday.

    April 18, 2014

  • ts honor flight 1.tif Flight of honor

    World War II veteran Charles Harra flew missions for the Army Air Corps, and if you ask him which flight was his most memorable, he’ll say it was his 35th mission.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Man charged after leading authorities on wild chase

    Prosecutors have formally charged a man who allegedly led authorities on a wild high-speed pursuit across Cherokee County in late March.

    April 17, 2014

  • Sex offender bonds out after failing to register

    A Cherokee County man is out on bond after being arrested last week for failing to register as a sex offender.

    April 17, 2014

  • jn radiator shop.jpg ‘Greenbelt’ progressing

    Crews this week began to demolish an abandoned radiator shop at the corner of South Street and Guinn Avenue.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • ts slut walk.tif SlutWalk shines spotlight on crime

    “Two, four, six, eight, stop the violence, stop the rape; slut, slut, ho, ho, yes means yes and no means no!”
    This was the battle cry across the campus of Northeastern State University, as the student branch of the American Association of University Women held its third annual SlutWalk Wednesday.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

Poll

What to you think of a state Legislature proposal to forbid cities from raising the minimum wage? Choose the closest to your opinion.

The federal government should set the minimum wage across the board.
States should be allowed to raise their minimum wages, but not cities.
Both states and cities should be allowed to raise their minimum wages.
Cities should be allowed to raise their mimum wages, but not states.
There should be no minimum wage at all.
Undecided.
     View Results
Tahlequah Daily Press Twitter
Follow us on twitter
AP Video
Stocks