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The Dictionary Project

Indigenous Languages

Date: 15 February 2021

CoEDL Research Associate and AIATSIS liaison Doug Marmion continued to coordinate the AIATSIS Dictionary Project in 2020, which saw eight new dictionaries published for the following languages: Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara, Mibinyah, Ngiyampaa, Umpithamu, Dhurga, Dhanggati, Arrernte and Ngarrindjeri.

The Dictionary Project began in 2019 when, following the success of the Sydney Language Dictionary, AIATSIS received a grant from the National Indigenous Australians Agency to publish further dictionaries for Indigenous languages. The project facilitates existing, sometimes decades-long efforts across Australia to compile lexical data gathered through linguistics research into the familiar and accessible format of a dictionary. Once published, the project also provides copies of the dictionaries to community members.

These dictionaries are a valuable resource for school and library collections, assisting with Indigenous language learning, maintenance and revitalisation. They bear a symbolic benefit, too, signalling to a language community that their language is valuable and worth the financial, time and research investment to keep it alive.

Repackaging linguistic data into a dictionary is also a valuable way for linguists to give back to the communities they work with; many linguists work on dictionaries for free in their spare time with this intent. Often dictionary efforts therefore have much of the content already assembled, only requiring the funding for the final touches of design and publishing. The Dictionary Project provides this final push.

CoEDL members have supported The Dictionary Project in many ways. Jane Simpson, for instance, organised with two of her 2019-2020 summer scholars—Eleanor Jorgensen and Romi Hill—to compile recordings and assist with formatting the content for Dhurga. The Dhurga Dictionary and Learners Grammar: A south-east coast, NSW Aboriginal language was launched in the Eurobodalla Shire Library on Friday 10 July 2020 with the three main compilers of the dictionary —Dhurga elders Patricia Ellis, Kerry Boyenga and Waine Donovan. 

The Dictionary Project has now published 14 of the dictionaries selected under its initial grant and is working to fund other dictionary projects in the future.

Photo: The Dhanggati dictionary, published in 2020, was launched on Friday 29 January 2021 in Kempsey. Pictured (L­–R) are Vincent Scott, Taylor Bradshaw, Caroline Bradshaw, Amanda Lissarrague, Aunty Gladys Quinlin and Greg Douglass. Photo: Louis Lissarrague.

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