New Yanomami Dictionary

November 8, 2007

During the recent CILLA III conference I had to opportunity to look at the new Yanomami dictionary compiled by Marie-Claude Mattéi-Müller, a veteran documentary linguist who has carried out fieldwork with an astonishing number of Venezuelan languages.

I’m no specialist in Yanomami — or any other Northern Amazonian language — so I can’t speak to the linguistic accuracy of the dictionary, but I was very impressed by its organization and encyclopedic spirit. This dictionary definitely exemplifies the trend in recent years to treat dictionaries of under-documented languages as repositories of ethnographic and ecological information, and not simply as glossed wordlists, which was the case for a long time (In the Amazonian case see, for example, most of the SIL dictionaries from the 70s and 80s). The Yanomami dictionary provides a great deal of cultural information (the entries for names of particular rituals, for example, include descriptions of the ritual) and scientific identifications of plants and animals. The latter is especially important in Amazonian languages, where plant and animal names are huge semantic domains which cannot be adequately described with glosses like “red bird” (this is a real definition in a dictionary I have). The dictionary also includes sections in which lexical items are grouped by semantic domain — a very useful feature in addition to the alphabetical listing. Apart from these virtues, it is also a very handsome volume — nice hardcover binding, color plates, and print quality. Limited financial resources mean that many dictionaries of Amazonian languages are printed on the cheap, so its nice to see a dictionary done right.

I talked with Marie Claude about her work on the dictionary, and among other things, I learned that she compiled it using Microsoft Word (!). I was floored. This meant that she had to do all the ordering, formatting, cross-referencing, and reversal-list creation by hand. Talk about doing it the hard way. But it makes her accomplishment all the more impressive. I suppose this shows how spoiled young whippersnappers like me are, but the idea of compiling dictionaries without database software fills me with dread.

I recommend this dictionary to all Amazonianists, and really to anyone working on the lexicography of under-documented languages who is looking for ideas for their own dictionary. The one major problem most people will encounter is actually finding a copy. Apparently it’s really only available in Venezuela at present, for about $70. Marie Claude is working on finding distributors outside Venezuela, but I’m not holding my breath. Probably the best way to get one would be to contact Marie Claude directly — write to me and I will put you in touch with her.

7 Responses to “New Yanomami Dictionary”

  1. Trish Shoultz Says:

    Hi … Am quite eager to get ahold of this dictionary.
    I just came back from Venezuela and wish to return again. Spent time in Amazonas state. I do have a way
    to arrange for its shipment to the US in a secure fashion as I lived in Venezuela for 7 years previously.
    Can you put me in touch with someone who can sell me one?

    My grateful thanks.

  2. David Marjanović Says:

    This meant that she had to do all the ordering, formatting, cross-referencing, and reversal-list creation by hand.

    Are you sure? Much of that was already available in Word 6.0 (in the early 1990s). I remember having made “see page X” cross-references where “X” is automatically replaced by the number of the page where the bookmark in question lies. MS Word is a huge program.

  3. levmichael Says:


    We may be thinking of different things when speaking of doing things “by hand”. If one uses a lexical database program (like Shoebox), for example, one can add entries willy-nilly, but the program can automatically export it alphabetical order. With Word, one actually has to move around blocks of text by hand to get alphabetical ordering. Similarly, with the reversal list, one can simply include the words that will form the headwords in the reversal list to a field in the main database entry to which those reversal list headwords will refer, and one can subsequently export an alphabetized, formatted reversal list. In Word, one would need to create a separate document (or separate part of the same document) and do more typing to creating the reversal list.

    I noticed, though, that you mostly zeroed in on the issue of cross-referencing. And, yes, one can do page number cross-references in Word. That still left MC a lot of work to do, though!

  4. David Marjanović Says:

    With Word, one actually has to move around blocks of text by hand to get alphabetical ordering.

    Not if you wrote them as cell tables instead of as text. Wait, Word can convert text into tables…

    I don’t know if a reversal list can be done in Word, though.

    I noticed, though, that you mostly zeroed in on the issue of cross-referencing.

    That’s because that’s the part where I happen to know how to do it.

    People always complain that Microsoft programs are so bloated… :-)

  5. Lev Michael Says:

    Coincidentally, it was the instability that Word displays with large tables (inevitable in descriptive linguistics) that led me to learn LaTeX.

  6. I’ve been translating myths and legends from the Yanomami and other indigenous tribes of Venezuela that are not available in English or very hard to get hold of.

    Have a look; Click here to read Yanomami Myth 1: The Origin of Fire

  7. Diego A. Nieto Says:

    Dear Sir,
    I am interested in Matei-Muller’s dictionary of the yanomamö language. How can I get more information about it and eventually buy it?
    Diego Nieto

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