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.