Dust by Any Other Name
United Republic of Tanzania
Sandawe homeland (Tanzania)
Did you know that in Sandawe a ray of sun is called a "bow of sun"? That "the black cat comes swallowing it" means that dark clouds are gathering and a storm is imminent? Or that a rainbow is called "grandfather's bow"? Well, no, probably not - I didn't either until recently. These are all things that I've learned in the last couple of weeks while I've been working on the Sandawe dictionary.
The aim of the Sandawe dictionary project is to transfer knowledge from walking dictionaries (i.e. the Sandawe people) into a non-ambulatory kind of dictionary (i.e. a computer, and then a book). The process began a couple of months ago, when some Sandawe were charged with the task of collecting as many words as they could think of under headings like "weather", "trees" and "animals". These words were then typed up into a language data programme and once the total reached 2000 or so, the time came to start checking the entries.
This was where my language assistant and I came in. At about fifty words an hour we slowly worked through the entries- adding Kiswahili and English translations, checking the spelling and adding a record of the tone of each word.
I never realised that a language could have quite so many different words for dust and stars! But then, thinking about what it is like out here, dust and stars are two things you see an awful lot of. And if the Eskimo can have several dozen words for snow, then I think the Sandawe can be allowed to have lots of different words for dust and stars!
You might at this point be wondering why on earth we're spending all this time and effort on compiling a dictionary - aren't we supposed to be translating the Bible?! Well, the idea is that the resulting dictionary can function as a spelling guide for everyone who is working on the actual Bible translation part of the project. It will be a huge help to have a clear record of how we have decided to spell certain words so we can try to be consistent. In addition, the way that words are being collected involves lots of different people and therefore hopefully we are getting a good variety of words, some of which individual translators might not immediately think of when caught up in translating. The dictionary can therefore not only be a spelling guide, but a prompt to other Sandawe to get caught up in translating.