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Lessons from an Oneida Dictionary Clifford Abbott Over the past two decades an important shift has occurred in the making of dictionaries of native American languages. Earlier, many of the dictionaries reflected in their design the kinds of questions their academic authors, typically linguists and anthropologists, were most interested in. For linguists these questions often concerned comparative and historical issues, and their dictionaries were used largely by other linguists for such purposes as searching out cognate forms, e.g., Chafe (1967, 2), who presented a root-based dictionary of Seneca because "above all I have wanted to provide data that can be used in comparative studies." For anthropologists the interest might focus on ethnographic detail for comparative research. Nowadays, with the rising awareness of how valuable and endangered native American languages are (Krauss 1996), it is far more common for dictionaries of these languages to be compiled in the context of language revitalization projects. These projects are usually community-based rather than academically based. The focus is now on issues such as literacy and teaching/learning. This shift offers important opportunities for gaining new insights into language structure and for reconsidering some important issues of dictionary design. This paper describes several lessons learned in the preparation of a bilingual dictionary, An Oneida Dictionary (OD) (Abbott, and others 1996). These lessons arise from the confrontation between traditional lexicographical design principles of consistency and efficiency against the intuitions of native speakers and learners about the structure of Oneida. The lessons are on (1) choosing citation forms, (2) choosing words to exemplify grammatical information, and (3) choosing a way to present complex prefixation. They suggest that the structure and circumstances of individual languages, rather than predetermined design principles, dictate how to make these choices. Lessons from an Oneida Dictionary125 Most of these languages are not encumbered by long traditions of literacy. This fact often presents as many problems, especially the political problems of agreeing on a standard orthography, as it does opportunities; but in practical terms the lack of writing traditions means there is more freedom in making choices to tailor the dictionary design to the languages. The shift to community-based dictionary projects also allows for new kinds of collaborations between linguists and native speakers. It may well be wise to take advantage of these opportunities , specifically to encourage design experimentation based on them. The experience in developing a dictionary for the Oneida language can help illustrate these points. Last year the Oneida tribe published the OD, a project that was almost 60 years in the making. The work began with a base of over 800 texts that were collected as part of a Works Progress Administration writers' project in the late 1930s. Floyd Lounsbury, who was then doing master's degree work at the University of Wisconsin, supervised a group of about a dozen Oneida speakers who were trained in a recently developed orthography. These Oneida speakers collected and compiled stories from other speakers around their reservationjust outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The lexical items from these texts were cut into slips, sorted by roots, and filed in boxes. Lounsbury worked on this collection off and on over the next several decades. Then in the early 1970s I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce a preliminary dictionary from these slips. The resulting manuscript raised as many problems both in content (citation forms were not always among the attested forms of a word) and format (some morphological information was incomplete ) as it did solutions, and so it was clear that the project needed to be supplemented with field work among native speakers. As it happened, I was in a position to do that field work over the following decade, and by the middle 1980s both the text-based work and the field work were coded into a custom-designed electronic database. There were many inefficiencies and constraints in this early database, such as a limited character set and the inability to add fields easily to records. Further work both in the field and in refining the computer format finally enabled me, in the 1990s, to transfer the material to a considerably more flexible commercial database from...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 124-134
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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