Dictionaries of African Sign Languages: An Overview

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THIS ARTICLE PRESENTS an overview of dictionaries of African sign languages (African SLs) that have been published to date. I begin with an introduction to the larger field of sign language lexicography and discuss some of the obstacles that authors of sign language dictionaries face in general, as well as obstacles related to sign language dictionary making in Africa in particular.

Next I present an introduction to the dictionaries of African SLs, including who produced them, why and for whom they were produced, and how data were collected. In the following sections, the structure and content of all dictionaries of African SLs are described and analyzed in detail. I describe the format and size of the dictionaries and the number of entries they comprise. I also look at whether the authors have included introductions, a user guide, information on the structure of sign languages, and indices. The section on the microstructure of the dictionaries discusses the presentation and translation of signs and whether any information on sign production and variation is provided. I also compare the language(s) the compilers decided to use.

While the dictionaries of African SLs are presented in chronological order within the article, they are listed in alphabetical order in the reference section.

Reasons for Making a Dictionary

According to David Crystal, a dictionary is "a reference book that lists the words of one or more languages, usually in alphabetical order, along with information about their spelling, pronunciation, grammatical status, meaning, history and use" (1997, 108). However, dictionaries not only present the words of a language and their meanings but also have sociolinguistic functions. Even though most dictionaries claim to be descriptive and not prescriptive, users often regard them as authoritative and standardized.

The most important reasons for making a dictionary of a language include the following:

* documentation of a language, which may serve different purposes, including these:

* people's need to obtain more information about a language

* the need to have a resource and research tool

* the need to protect and preserve a language that is under threat from (an)other dominant language(s)

* recognition of a language, legitimating a language, or confirming the status of a language

* standardization: according to Johnston (2003), this is the prime motivation for making a dictionary.

In many countries, the sign language dictionaries that have been published in recent years are often the first dictionaries of the national sign language (see Carmel 1992) and therefore always have some function of setting a standard - whether or not this was intended. However, the most important reason for making sign language dictionaries has been to show that sign languages are bona fide languages like any spoken language.This aspect of demonstrating that sign languages are "fully developed," "real" languages and not gestures or pantomime has been particularly important for deaf people. In fact, if one looks at the introductions to sign language dictionaries, authors always seem to feel the need to emphasize that the language they are documenting is indeed a language (see the section on reasons and aims).

By putting the signs of a language into a book (the size of this book is also important), the language thereby seems to become real; this can help to strengthen the deaf community and its culture:

The sociolinguistic functions of dictionaries - to provide standard models and to reinforce and confirm the status of languages - will probably continue to guide the production of dictionaries. And clearly for emerging deaf communities and sign languages, both of these functions are central to the continuing empowerment of deaf people all over the "world. (Lucas 2003, 339)

In Africa, showing that sign languages are fully developed languages is even more important. …