Mila Koumpilova, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published March 24 2012
Quest to preserve Ojibwe goes onlineST. PAUL – Gerri Howard was loath to let a digital recorder capture her voice for a new kind of dictionary.
A fluent speaker of Ojibwe on Minnesota’s Leech Lake Reservation, she didn’t like how she sounded on playback. But the sense of urgency she and other Ojibwe speakers share about their endangered tongue prevailed.
With help from elders such as Howard, a University of Minnesota professor and students have created the first online talking dictionary of Ojibwe. The effort involved crisscrossing Minnesota and Wisconsin to record the voices of the dictionary and brainstorm entries for new-fangled concepts such as “Internet” and “school dance.”
“I was glad they were doing this because our language is getting lost,” Howard said. “A lot more people will be able to learn it now.”
The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary is part of redoubled efforts in recent years to preserve and revitalize Ojibwe, the language of some 200,000 people in the Great Lakes region, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
For some time, John Nichols, a professor in the university’s Department of American Indian Studies and co-author of a widely used 1995 Ojibwe dictionary, had thought about compiling an updated version.
In conversations with his department chair, historian Brenda Child, an idea was born: Why not tap digital technology to overcome the limitations of traditional print dictionaries?
In tandem with the Minnesota Historical Society, the university lined up a roughly $375,000 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment grant for the project.
Going digital opened up many possibilities: Users can search definitions using both Ojibwe and English. The authors have so far compiled about 8,000 online entries, with an eventual goal of as many as 30,000. That compares to 7,000 in Nichols’ “A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe.” Most important, Childs said, “You click on a word, and you hear Ojibwe people actually speaking the language.”
The dictionary also is a virtual museum of sorts, with photos, drawings and texts from the Historical Society collection complementing the entries. But the new format was also an adjustment.
Graduate student Michael Sullivan traveled to reservations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario to record elders pronouncing the new entries in some of Ojibwe’s nearly dozen regional dialects. He was part of a team collecting audio to complement Nichols’ own extensive collection of Ojibwe field recordings. He set up audio equipment in their homes, sometimes using an iPhone to show how the new dictionary worked.
“There is a tremendous effort going on throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin to revitalize the language,” said Sullivan, who grew up on a Wisconsin reservation where he says only 10 fluent speakers remain among some 5,000 residents. “We got the real stuff from the finest speakers we have left.”
The university team also hosted brainstorming sessions for words to describe newer concepts, which in Ojibwe involves stringing together existing words. The Ojibwe word for Internet, for instance, literally means “electric net.” A modern-day school dance is something like “at-school-they-slide-their-feet-while-they-are-dancing.”
Meanwhile, Nora Livesay, a doctoral candidate in linguistics with a background in Web design, became a liaison between the linguists and the web specialists at university libraries. The digital dictionary drew on a low-tech trove: hundreds of field notebooks Nichols had filled with definitions and sentences since the 1960s and an old database he maintained.
“Part of my job was expectation management and anxiety control,” said Livesay.
The dictionary now features some 60,000 audio clips. The authors hope to add more words and features in coming months.
Howard, the Leech Lake elder, said she is glad she relented about lending her voice to the effort, along with friend Leona Wakonabo. The pair work at an Ojibwe immersion school, where teachers have shared the new tool with students and parents. "We think that's wonderful," Howard said.
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