Online Ojibwe dictionary helps preserve culture and language

The new digital dictionary contains more than 30,000 words — groundbreaking for the language.
March 27, 2012

 

 Faculty, students and the Department of American Indian Studies have recently launched a new online dictionary of the Ojibwe language.

The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary is an online search engine of more than 30,000 words in Central Southwestern Ojibwe, spoken in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Canadian-border lakes communities.

The dictionary is an extension of “A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe.” John D. Nichols, an American Indian Studies professor at the University of Minnesota, co-wrote the printed dictionary of 7,000 words in 1994.

The site includes more than word definitions. It’s composed of audio recordings, images, video and documents.

The new Ojibwe dictionary also serves as a gateway into the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. Brenda Child, chair of the American Indian Studies department, was involved in attaching historical documents and working with the society.

“I think anyone studying the language would be able to see how it is much more useful to hear words and sentence examples when you’re learning the language than you just picking up a paper dictionary,” Child said.

As a part of the National Science Foundation’s Endangered Languages Program, Nichols began working on the project many years ago. Recent technology allowed Nichols, University libraries, students and other colleagues to create the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary as intended.

“Everything is built in the word,” Chato Gonzalez, an American Indian Studies junior, said about the nature of the Ojibwe language. “Sometimes you can’t always understand or explain [a word]. I’ll look at a word in the dictionary, and it’s broken down all of the way for you.”

Many words in the dictionary are divided into parts, and each part of the word has its own meaning. Together, all of the parts create a word with new meaning.

Ojibwe itself is an important part of the American Indian community. A University of California-Los Angeles Language Materials Project considers Ojibwe to be one of the largest North American languages in terms of speakers.

The dictionary is meant to preserve the language. Recent generations are not speaking the language — most speakers are elderly, above or around the age of 70, which has caused concern that the language is endangered.

Gonzalez, originally from Wisconsin, grew up in a neighborhood where most elders spoke Ojibwe. As an adult, he moved to Minnesota and upon visiting his hometown, he discovered that barely anyone spoke the language anymore.

“The urgency was there to learn Ojibwe, so I started learning it on my own,” he said. “That led me to learn it in school.”

Another grant provided by Minnesota’s Historical and Cultural Heritage Fund will help with the second phase of the dictionary. This is intended to incorporate feedback from users, enhance the virtual museum and add youth-friendly features.

There are many hopes for the future of the Ojibwe language.

“I think it’s going to be really cool, especially if we can get people to use it; there is a lot of information about our culture, too, in addition to just words,” said Jenn Hall, a whole systems healing and Ojibwe language junior.

Hall is of Ojibwe heritage and currently learning the language at the University. She wanted to reconnect with her culture and the language her grandfather and great aunt had spoken.

A launch party for the new Ojibwe dictionary will be held April 2 in McNamara Alumni Center.

“I really hope that we can bring it back so that it’s spoken daily and not just a special ceremonial language,” Hall said.

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