Dictionaries – for those of us that know and love them well – are more than just a collection of words. In Aboriginal Australia at least, dictionaries are increasingly about culture and people’s daily lives as lived.

Over at the Endangered Languages and Cultures blog my occasional linguistic acquaintance Jane Simpson has written a lovely review of the latest publication from Alice Spring’s IAD Press – the Kaytetye to English Dictionary.

I’m a little pressed for time this morning so I’ll just grab a couple of excerpts and leave the rest of exploring what looks like a great example of the genre up to you.

I know at least one of the people behind this Dictionary – Myf Turpin, with whom I have done some work on birds in the past (see this post on the posters of birds “that tell people things” here).

The IAD Press blurb is pretty modest:

The Kaytetye to English dictionary is ideal for both beginners and advanced speakers of Kaytetye, for translators, and for anyone interested in learning more about Aboriginal languages and culture.

But Jane Simpson give more than enough reasons to go out and buy this work – here is what she said when she launched the book a few weeks back at the Aboriginal Languages Workshop at Stradbroke Island:

Things I love about this dictionary

1. it’s alkenhe (big) and contains elperterre (hard language).

2. It has lots of audiences: community members, linguists, scientists, teachers, people who want to learn the language. And the compilers, Myfany Turpin and the Kaytetye linguist, Alison Ross, have done their best to help all of these audiences. This is a dictionary that we will all learn from, not just for the encyclopaedic knowledge of Kaytetye it embodies, but also for how to present dictionary information.

3. I was trying to think of a metaphor to describe the Kaytetye Dictionary project. And I came up with the quandong tree (not a tree from Kaytetye country but not far off…).

Quandong tree: fruit

The bright red fruit looks pretty and it’s delicious.

So I dip into the Kaytetye dictionary anywhere and I find things I love, I just keep on eating.

Here are some:

Pronunciation: Arandic languages have a spelling system which takes a lot of getting used to – but the introduction to the dictionary is a real winner. It explains the system, demonstrates how sounds are made, gives respellings that will help English speakers, and even fuzzy spelling search clues. One thing I really like is the cross reference to words that sound similar arerre ‘collarbone’ and ararre ‘white bread’ are cross-referenced to help you distinguish between them.

Words: The dictionary includes not just traditional words but words for new things, words which show Kaytetye as a living language, one that a speech community uses to talk about things like batik wax, atnkere, and not-so-everyday things like guardian angels, arremparrenge. It also includes placenames, and a map with around 100 place names including country names. Yes!


You can read more of this fascinating story over at Jane’s wonderful Endangered Languages & Culture blog.

I’ve placed my order and look forward to spending a few hours digging through the words and culture within.

Will you?



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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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