The Roles of Literacy and Collabortion in Documenting Native American Languages: A Report from the Jicarilla Apache Dictionary Project

By Axelrod, Melissa; de Garcia, Jule Gomez et al. | Sign Language Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Roles of Literacy and Collabortion in Documenting Native American Languages: A Report from the Jicarilla Apache Dictionary Project


Axelrod, Melissa, de Garcia, Jule Gomez, Lachler, Jordan, Sign Language Studies


THIS ARTICLE reports on the progress of a project to produce a dictionary of the Jicarilla Apache language. Jicarilla, an Eastern Apachean language, is spoken on the Jicarilla Apache reservation in northern New Mexico. Approximately 21 percent of the population is fluent in the language. This is a collaborative project involving linguists and a small circle of speakers in the Jicarilla Apache community in Dulce, New Mexico. Through this project we have learned much about the role of literacy in language standardization and in speaker empowerment, and we believe that many parallels exist between writing a dictionary of an endangered Native American language and writing a dictionary of a sign language.

The structures of polysynthetic or morphologically rich languages-and indeed of languages differing typologically from English in any way-present lexicographers with a number of interrelated issues. We can group these issues into three sets: (1) the process of writing the dictionary, including issues of literacy and orthography, elicitation and negotiation, goals, and audience; (2) the relationship of language structure to the organization and design of the dictionary; and (3) issues of power and identity in working with a minority language.

The Process of Writing a Dictionary

The creation of a dictionary for a language whose speakers are rapidly declining in number is a multilayered process of negotiation among native speaker consultants and linguists. These negotiations take place at a number of stages throughout the writing process, the first of which is a negotiation of the dictionary's purpose. Although stated goals of the project may be the documentation or creation of a reference dictionary or teaching tool, the stated purpose is rarely standardization of the language.

One of the goals of the speakers who joined the Jicarilla Apache dictionary project is to document the language for a younger generation that no longer speaks Jicarilla. Jicarilla Apache project members believe it is very important to record the words and rhythms of the language so that these, along with descriptions of the cultural context for various expressions, are available for younger community members. Another goal for one of our collaborators is to produce a teaching grammar for bilingual teachers. This team member, Mrs. Olson, who is currently the bilingual teacher in the public school, wishes to have a clear understanding of the grammatical structures of the language so that she will be better equipped to teach the language to her students in a systematic, effective way.

The Jicarilla speakers also wish to satisfy their own fascination with and delight in language work. One of the team members, Mrs. Phone, has been working on language projects in Jicarilla Apache, her native language, for more than thirty years. A largely self-trained linguist, Mrs. Phone finds the process of thinking through the lexical and grammatical intricacies of Jicarilla Apache to be immensely enjoyable, and it was in fact her enthusiasm that prompted us to seek funding to develop this project.

A third Jicarilla member of the team, Mrs. Martinez, is the most traditional of the Apache speakers in that she remembers words, primarily ethnobotanical and ethnobiological terms, that are no longer widely used by younger speakers. She is also fluent in the cultural explanations, interpretations, and linguistic and ritual practices underlying many ceremonies and traditional responses to life events such as births and deaths. She has never written Jicarilla Apache before but now wishes to learn to do so through her work on the dictionary project. At the team's monthly meetings, part of the fascination for the linguists is to watch her delight in and enthusiasm for her emerging literacy skills.

Our first challenge in working on the project involved working together to develop a standard writing system for the language, one that accurately reflects the sounds of the language without being so complex that it intimidates learners.

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