Stoney Nakoda dictionary project to inspire, preserve

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 28, 2009

Much has been said lately about the survival of First Nations languages, and especially about the relationship of dictionary production to their survival. As a descriptive linguist specializing in the Stoney Nakoda language, I’d like to address this issue.

First, yes, indigenous languages around the world are endangered.

The United Nations, in a 2008 proclamation, stressed “the silent crisis confronting many of the world’s languages, the overwhelming majority of which are indigenous peoples’ languages.”

The Stoney Nakoda language, with only a couple of thousand speakers, is no exception.

Stoney Nakoda is the dialect of Sioux spoken west of Cochrane at Morley and elsewhere along the Alberta foothills.

When I first began studying Stoney Nakoda in 1965, virtually every person at Morley spoke the language. Indeed, it would be fair to say that most of life happened in the Stoney language. (See my Aug. 6, 2008 column.)

That is no longer the case. Pressures to use English to the exclusion of Stoney Nakoda are becoming quite overwhelming. True, Stoney Nakoda is nowhere near extinction, but the danger signs are there. In a community where elders have long said, “You are what you speak,” what will become of cultural memory and personal identity?

Can anything be done to counter such change?

One approach I’m personally involved with on a consultative basis is the development of an encyclopedic dictionary of the Stoney Nakoda language.

Working under the directorship of Greg Twoyoungmen, of Morley, and in cooperation with Stoney Nakoda elder and linguist John Robinson “J.R.” Twoyoungmen and their team, I have the privilege of providing a logistical framework for achieving this important goal.

Now, there are many kinds of dictionaries, and not all dictionaries are created equal. On the simplest level in English, we have a picture and a matching word, not unlike Grade 1 classroom displays of cards with a picture of an apple and the word “apple,” or a picture of a ball and the word “ball,” etc. Above these are all kinds of short, specialized dictionaries.

Then there are basic bilingual dictionaries, often no more than wordlists, with a word in one language matched against its translation in another. Although such dictionaries can be assembled fairly quickly, they provide only limited insights into the true nature of the language, its usage and its speakers’ heritage.

Comprehensive dictionaries, on the other hand, are not overnight productions. They draw from all aspects of life and literature, written and oral, and take years to prepare. In fact, they are always a work-in-progress, because language is always changing. Take, for example, the legendary OED, the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition, 1989), with nearly 300,000 entries.

Many people assume – incorrectly – that a First Nations dictionary should be not much more than a glorified wordlist with a picture here and there, or perhaps a phrase book sufficient for the curious. But in fact, a worthy dictionary for any indigenous language should be as respectful of its rich heritage as the OED is for English – though probably not as long. Such authoritative dictionaries are indispensable reference points for all other kinds of research, writing and curriculum development.

The process of serious dictionary production can be broken into five steps, and these apply to the development of the Stoney Nakoda dictionary just as much as to any other reference dictionary:

  1. Collecting and transcribing a large, representative corpus of stories, speeches, conversations, sayings, and miscellaneous words;
  2. Creating an ordered list, or concordance, of all the words in the corpus, together with their immediate contexts;
  3. Describing and defining the various usages and meanings of the words identified in the concordance;
  4. Organizing the results into a user-friendly layout, together with artwork, cross-references, indices, bilingual aids, and feature articles on key concepts and language-related topics;
  5. Publishing in print and/or digital form.

Simple? No. Worthwhile? Absolutely! This whole process must proceed with great sensitivity and discipline. It must be above politics and pettiness. This is a sacred task, and it demands reverential commitment.

Now, dictionaries by themselves will not keep a language alive. A dictionary only mirrors how a language is – or was – actually used.

But in the case of endangered languages, such as Stoney Nakoda, the whole process of dictionary making just might re-awaken its speakers to the linguistic diamonds in their own backyard before those diamonds are lost forever.

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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