Citing Verbs in Polysynthetic Languages: The Case of the Cherokee-English Dictionary

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ABSTRACT. This article represents an additional contribution to the steadily growing body of work that addresses the problems faced in creating dictionaries for Native American languages. In his 1975 Cherokee-English dictionary, Feeling cites verbs in the third-person singular conjugated forms. Cherokee is a polysynthetic language in which all verbs are bound roots; accordingly, bare verbal stems do not surface for speakers. Today's potential audience differs from the 1975 audience in a number of ways, however, which render the choice to use conjugated forms less appealing. This paper asserts that listing verbs by their unprefixed stems is a linguistically sound alternative which will make the dictionary more helpful for those individuals most likely to use it. Three arguments in favor of using the unprefixed stems as citation forms are presented. First, complex phonological rules render certain forms unpredictable based solely on the conjugated forms given in the dictionary. Second, dialectal variation causes surface forms to vary; using a common underlying stem will make the dictionary more accessible to different speakers. Third, using stems will place derivationally-related words together and increase the dictionary's use as a pedagogical tool while involving a relatively minimal amount of parsing. The paper concludes with suggestions for making a practical electronic dictionary of a polysynthetic language that is useful for a new generation of L2 users as well as linguists. *

1. INTRODUCTION. The purpose of this paper is to offer a possible solution for problems involved in the creation of a Cherokee-English dictionary. The problems a lexicographer faces when creating such a bilingual dictionary are typical for many languages of the Americas. Mithun points out that many Native American languages are polysynthetic; that is, they are characterized by words with a high number of morphemes (1999:38). Verbs in these languages frequently have obligatory inflection for person, tense, aspect, and other grammatical features. The lexicographer of a polysynthetic language is faced with the dilemma of either using an inflected form as a citation form or using an unnatural root form. This paper examines the dictionary of one such polysynthetic language, Oklahoma Cherokee, and suggests that an unprefixed stem form is more appropriate than a naturally occurring form. I will present three arguments for using the stem. First, the prefixed form often obscures the underlying form of the stem and thereby makes other prefixed forms unpredictable. Second, prefixed form entries create difficulties for speakers of different varieties of Cherokee. Third, using the stem form can serve as a learning tool by placing derivationally-related words together. While this format presents some difficulties of its own, this paper will argue that such a format is better suited to the individuals most likely to use the dictionary, namely, L2 users who have been exposed to the language in a classroom environment. Furthermore, most of the potential drawbacks of such a design can be diminished by using an electronic format. While there are valid concerns regarding the use of stems as citation forms, the increasing ability to translate paper dictionaries into searchable, electronic databases may provide excellent solutions to very real problems.

1.1 PREVIOUS WORK ON CHEROKEE. The Cherokees are one of the largest and most-recognized indigenous groups in the United States. Given the size of this group, it is surprising that there are relatively few pedagogical or linguistic materials available for the language. Several sketches and articles were published in the first half of the 20th century (Bender and Harris 1946; Reyburn 1953a, 1953 b, 1954), and two dissertation grammars of North Carolina Cherokee appeared in the 1970's (King 1975, Cook 1979). In the following decades the most important contributions were a dissertation on grammatical relations and verb agreement (Scancarelli 1987), two chapter-length grammatical sketches (Scancarelli 2005, Walker 1975), a collection of UCLA linguistic articles devoted to Oklahoma Cherokee (Munro 1996a), and a Cherokee-English Dictionary with an attached grammatical sketch (Pulte and Feeling 1975). …