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Nen Dictionary available online

Australian National University, Nicholas Evans, Shape

Date: 23 August 2019

A dictionary of the Nen language of Papua New Guinea, compiled by Nicholas Evans, is now available as an online publication.

With 5005 lexical entries, this is the first major dictionary of a Papuan language to appear in online format. It is also the first published dictionary of a language of the Yam family, which counts about 20 languages in the Morehead district of Western Province of PNG, and in the Merauke District of Indonesia.

The dictionary is the result of work by Nick and his Nen-speaking collaborators over the past 11 years – about 70 of them are acknowledged directly on the dictionary’s home page.  

Nen Dictionary group Bimadbn village

Ebig Gubae, Julia Miller, Penny Johnson, Nick Evans, Michael Binzawa and children of Bimadbn Village standing beside the dictionary pole.

Nick says both he and the community wanted the stock of knowledge already gathered made available without waiting for up to 60 years – the lifespan that often accompanies the preparation of a full dictionary. “The dictionary remains provisional and incomplete, but this version is being published to provide a resource for community members and scholars from a range of backgrounds wanting to learn something about the vocabulary of this fascinating language,” Nick says.

The digital publication is also enhanced by many wonderful images of flora and fauna, as well as recordings of the calls of 69 local birds. For example, listen to the call of the Awawako (Spotted Catbird) here.

Nen has around 400 people speakers who mostly live in the village of Bimadbn, but as a result of intermarriage with neighbouring groups many speakers are also to be found in neighbouring villages. Bimadbn is highly multilingual, with over ten languages present, and most individuals living there speak two or more languages fluently, with a typical portfolio being Nen, Nmbo and Idi.

“All children growing up in the village learn Nen fluently and, apart from its small speaker base, the language is currently quite secure,” Nick adds.

Nen Dictionary pole in Bimadbn village PNG

Each field trip the number of lexical entries recorded up to the previous year is carved into the side of the pole. As well as recording the number using Arabic numerals, the number of entries is also recorded using the Nen senary (base six) system.

Although literacy in the language is limited to a few individuals, in the process of producing the dictionary Nick revised and stabilised the orthography. “Following a community request, we have translated some portions of the Bible into Nen and readings from these are carried out at Sunday services,” he says. “I hope that the availability of this dictionary in a form that can be accessed by the Nen diaspora will help promote literacy skills.”

Another symbol of the community’s enthusiasm for the project is a large tree that was squared up to form a ‘dictionary pole’ and erected in front of Nick’s house in the village. Each field trip, the number of lexical entries recorded up to the previous year is carved into the side of the pole to keep track. Villagers take great pride in drawing this pole to the attention of visitors from other villages.

Nick has already published on positional verbs, valency, inflection, quantifiers and the complex four-valued number system of Nen, and a full grammar is in preparation. The Nen Dictionary was funded by a range of projects including CoEDL, the Australian Research Council’s ‘Languages of Southern New Guinea’, Volkswagen-Stiftung DoBeS, and Nick’s ARC Laureate ‘The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity’.

“Most importantly, I thank the entire population of Bimadbn village for their hospitality and friendship, particularly the members of the language and clan committee,” Nick says.

Nen Dictionary cover

The Dictionaria project, publisher of the Nen Dictionary, aims to make on-line dictionaries of little-documented languages available to the wider world, giving researchers a chance to publish ‘interim’ dictionaries as refereed publications. It was initially funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and is now supported by one of CoEDL’s partner institutions, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

[Main image: Controibutors Michael Binzawa and Jimmy Nébni carving the latest dictionary tally onto the dictionary pole. First, second and third photos in this story by Dr Julia Colleen Miller.) 

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University