Sunday, June 18, 2006

Making A Dictionary

For about the past year and a half, I’ve been revising a dictionary of the Biloxi language. The only dictionary ever published on this language is from 1912, and it is not very user-friendly. In fact, it’s downright frustrating! This dictionary is composed of and organized mostly by monosyllabic or disyallabic so called "roots," many of which are not roots at all. Thus if one merely looks at the dictionary "root" entry, s/he will get only part of the word, and, in order to get the whole word, one must look through a myriad of subentries using the supposed root. What’s worse, words are often found in the subentries of a "root" heading that don’t even belong under that particular heading.

My answer to this lexicographic nightmare is the revision of this dictionary, which contains most of the data extant on this now unfortunately extinct Siouan language. This is my first attempt at lexicography, although hopefully not my last since I’m also currently developing a wordlist for Rumsen Ohlone as I work on the John P. Harrington notes from that language.


In revising the Biloxi dictionary, I’m discovering some of the challenges inherent in working on Amerindian languages. Perhaps the greatest challenge is in knowing just how to classify many words, since the traditional Indo-European concepts of grammar and word classification (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.) usually don’t hold true for many of the languages of Native America. The Siouan languages, including Biloxi, have the classes of words we know as nouns and verbs, but they do not have adjectives. What normally serve as adjectives in Biloxi are actually verbal in nature. For example,

Masada thohi na.

dish blue DECL-M

The dish is blue. (Male speaking.)



Biloxi has no equivalent of the verb ‘to be,’ so that "dish blue" serves as an entire sentence. (The na in this example is the male "oral period" signaling the end of a declarative sentence. Such a declarative sentence-final marker is compulsory in some Siouan languages but it’s optional in Biloxi and could be left out. The female declarative marker is ni.) So, the question arises, what is thohi really, an adjective or a verb? Since one could also say, if one were covered with blue dye, ąthohi, where ą- is the first person singular prefix, "I am blue," it’s easy to see that thohi could also be a verb. Perhaps the literal translations of these sentences into English would be: "The dish blues" or "the dish is bluing" and "I blue" or "I am bluing."

Affixes are another tricky problem in Siouan, as well as in most other agglutinative Amerindian languages, for lexicographers. For instance, there is the Biloxi xehe, ‘to sit,’ and axehe, ‘to sit on something.’ Should axehe and xehe be considered separate words or should axehe, incorporating the Siouan a- locative prefix (in or at a place), be considered a mere variant of xehe? (Siouan languages do not have an infinitive verbal form, by the way, so the third person singular form of verbs, which is the only form without affixation, is considered the base form of a verb and is the generic form of a verb found in dictionary headings.)

My solution so far to the first issue is to classify words according to their traditional role in Indo-European grammar. If the Biloxis decide to revitalize their language, they are already English speakers and will probably feel more comfortable seeing words classified according to the grammar of their first language, English, at least until they gain more fluency in Biloxi.

My solution so far for the second issue is to place these verbal variants under their own respective headings, so that someone can find axehe under the letter a as well as find xehe under the letter x. But I’m also cross-referencing these "base" forms without affixes to the variants with affixes that can be found in other parts of the dictionary. Thus, if one looks up xehe, ‘to sit,’ s/he will also find the notation: "see axehe." Likewise for xehe under the axehe ‘to sit on something’ entry.

2 comments:

Rob said...

My solution so far to the first issue is to classify words according to their traditional role in Indo-European grammar. If the Biloxis decide to revitalize their language, they are already English speakers and will probably feel more comfortable seeing words classified according to the grammar of their first language, English.

That would seem the most reasonable solution, given the demographics of the Biloxi population. I remember hearing that the Utes did the same thing, though I being a semiticist couldn't say for sure.

I am still thinking of taking that Native American ling class....

Dave said...

I encourage you to take that Amerindian linguistics class. (I try not to say "Native American" anymore since many Indians themselves don't like the term, preferring just "Indian" instead.) Always a good idea to broaden your horizons, and, personally, I find the Amerindian languages fascinating! They, along with the Australian aboriginal languages, are among the most ancient languages we can study.