The Linguist

The Linguist 58,5 - October/November 2019

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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22 The Linguist Vol/58 No/5 2019 FEATURES Exploring the secrets of life through words: Anvita Abbi on the art of compiling a dictionary of a dying language A large portion of language documentation (be it of a thriving language or of a dying language) involves compiling lexicons and making interactive dictionaries with sound files and pictures. Writing a dictionary for a dying or moribund language is a real challenge in terms of content and methodology. The objectives are larger than creating a database of definitions, warranting a comprehensive account of the indigenous knowledge system and the world view of its speakers. It was in this context that I approached the preparation of a multilingual, interactive Dictionary of the Great Andamanese Language, 1 as part of project VOGA. 2 The challenges of preparing a dictionary of a moribund language vary from excessive variation among speakers, inconsistencies in grammatical structures, the inability to verify data, erratic conversational structure, a decreasing use of the language in varying domains, and the loss of several registers. One factor that helps linguists and lexicographers to attain their goal is the wish of community members to see in print what is lost to them, or quickly becoming lost. They are interested in recording the names of objects and events more than documenting grammar, perhaps because fluency declines as a language starts its journey towards extinction. Hence, it may be difficult to elicit sentences and discourse patterns in a dying language, but comparatively easy to establish the names of various referents, primarily those belonging to the surrounding environment. The Great Andamanese people are the remnants of the first migration from Africa that took place 70,000 years ago. The very first settlers of Southeast Asia, the hunter- gatherer community lives in isolation in the Great Andaman archipelago, having no contact with the outside world until the British turned the islands into a penal colony (known as kaalaa paanii) in 1858. Their language, Present-day Great Andamanese (PGA), is a mix of four northern varieties of Great Andamanese languages: Jeru, Khora, Bo and Sare. The family of languages was once spoken by the ten tribes living on the north, south and middle islands, but now only five semi-speakers are left. Living on the tiny Strait Island, 54km from the capital Port Blair, they use the local variety of Hindi in daily life. The approaching loss of traditional environmental knowledge makes some elders open to documenting their knowledge system. I have often heard Great Andamanese elders say: "Our children do not know all that we know. I wish they had all the wisdom we and our forefathers had." The community was willing to give detailed information about objects in the jungle and birds of the forest. The only method for obtaining natural data is having access to the ecological environment. The techniques for dealing with flora and fauna differ, as the former can be accessed and viewed easily while the latter has to be made available through pictures. It is of great help if investigators equip and familiarise themselves with the endemic and migratory birds of the area and collect pictures of each in advance. This picture book can be used for the elicitation and verification of data, especially as speakers can be expected to give two or more names for the same bird. The significance of birds Elicitation should not be confined to names alone but should extend to whatever information locals can provide about the birds. 3 This may include aspects such as habits, habitats, nesting behaviour, food, breeding, migratory status, body parts, use in hunting, cultural relevance, and role in augury, beliefs and mythology. The investigator can later correlate these with the known observed ornithological aspects of the species. This will Making of a dictionary <

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