Dictionary Work Preserves Siamou Language

by Paul Thiessen

BURKINA FASO – Dictionary Day; I didn’t even know there was such a day! I discovered it was October 16—the birthday of Noah Webster. Here’s my own dictionary story:

When I started learning the Siamou language 36 years ago, I began by writing down a list of words that I was learning. I started out on paper, but eventually began a dictionary database on my computer to include new words I was discovering.

Every year we added new words and every year the dictionary grew. One day when I was out in the field near our house in Tin with Ibrahim, I asked him for the names of all the plants growing out there. He told me the Siamou names for many plants and how they were useful for medicinal purposes, making a grass roof, weaving baskets, cooking sauces, bundling into scrub pads, twisting into rope…everything imaginable!

A fascinating example: there is a plant called bisháɛ́ŋ-fùr-tú-mɔ́n. The name means thing-with-which-you-wipe-a-child’s-bottom. Some years later, a botanist came to Burkina Faso and helped me identify many of the plants so that I could include their scientific Latin names in my dictionary. The dictionary project is part of the bigger Bible translation project Solo and I have been doing together. But Bible translation was of higher priority, so the dictionary work was a sideline.

Now that we are settled in Manitoba, I’m doing most of my work by computer, by Skype, online. I have a Siamou friend, Fatogoma, in the city of Ouagadougou who loves his Siamou language. A friend of our family since his childhood days in the village of Tin, he is now a university graduate.

Since last August, Fatogoma and I have been doing Siamou dictionary corrections together, working regularly from 10 a.m. to 12 noon weekdays (that’s 3–5 p.m. in Burkina Faso).

Right now we are trying to get a short version of the dictionary corrected for publication—just 1,000 words. We are focusing on correcting the illustrative sentences. Each word has an illustrative sentence in Siamou with a translation of that sentence into French.

The illustrative sentence uses the key word so that it helps the reader to understand that word better. Fatogoma knows Siamou better than I do (since he is a native speaker) and he knows French better than I do too (because he has done his university studies in French). We read each sentence and check for spelling and grammar errors in both languages.

During September and October we corrected 700 of the 1,000 entries. Lexicography consultants with SIL are helping us to prepare the dictionary for publication on their Webonary website. The Siamou dictionary on this website is a work-in-progress and is not yet available to the general public. Once all the corrections are done and the orthography has been revised, the Siamou dictionary will be published.

One lexicography expert that I am especially thankful for is Pam Morris who taught a lexicography workshop in Ouagadougou some years ago, giving Solo, Lillian and me additional tools in dictionary making.

In the complete computer database I have 4,346 entries. My dream is to go back to Orodara to organize a Rapid Work Collection Workshop in order to double the number of words in this dictionary. There is a newly developed word collection method that helps to find obscure and less used words to add to a dictionary.

After that I would like to edit, correct and publish an 8,000 word Siamou dictionary both as a paper book and as a computer accessible database. Such a dictionary will become available as an app on smartphones as well. Fatogoma and a few others already have this Siamou app on their smartphones (unfinished, rough draft, trial version).

The Siamou people have never yet had a dictionary for their language. This will be the first one. It is very exciting to be part of a project that provides a people group with its first dictionary.
Publishing a dictionary for a minority language group has the following benefits:

(1) it raises the prestige of the language and culture;
(2) it encourages the use of the language;
(3) it helps people learn the language—there are many Siamou people in Mali and Ivory Coast who don’t know their mother tongue well;
(4) it encourages literacy;
(5) it helps to prevent a language from becoming extinct or at least it slows down the process;
(6) it documents and safeguards linguistic and cultural information that may be lost if the language eventually dies;
(7) it helps Bible translators find the right word and the right spelling for each word.

So there you have it—a report of my Siamou Dictionary work—reported to you with my newly discovered awareness of Dictionary Day!

Paul Thiessen (Blumenort), currently living in Canada, has served in Burkina Faso, west Africa, for many years.

Leave a Reply