Tlingit dictionary an invaluable cultural resource

The Interior Tlingit Noun Dictionary

A new dictionary of the Tlingit language is an important cultural document for the Tlingit people, says Bessie Cooley of the Teslin Tlingit First Nation. Recently published by the Yukon Native Language Centre, the Interior Tlingit noun dictionary represents years of painstaking collaborative effort. The Centre long ago recognized the special position of the interior language and began the more than decade long process of facilitating dictionary development. The Centre funded and coordinated the work of Alaskan linguist Dr. Jeff Leer who collaborated with a number of elders from the communities of Atlin, Teslin, and Carcross.

With a total of more than 5500 Tlingit words and phrases from three different dialects, it represents “trying to put a living language on a piece of paper,” says Cooley, herself a fluent speaker of Tlingit and a language instructor with the First Nation in Teslin.

It's not only a significant resource for people learning the language, she explains, but also a document of cultural information such as clan names and kinship terminology that would otherwise be lost with the passing of fluent speakers.

Cooley herself helped to work on the dictionary while completing a bachelor's degree in native studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Her task was to assist Leer, a linguist with the Alaska Native Language Center, in confirming the meaning of some of the many entries he had compiled over the years.

“Dr. Leer would ask me to take each word he'd gathered and use it in a sentence so that he could double-check the information,” explains Cooley.

“He would ask for two to four sentences for each word so that he knew he had translated it correctly.”

Some of the words were ones that Cooley hadn't heard since the passing of her parents 15 years earlier, including “some of the language used out on the land that you don't use in town.”

It was “a good feeling” to come across those older words, she says, noting that many of them don't have an adequate English translation.

“It was sort of like a homecoming, being reminded of them.”

The job of compiling and producing such a dictionary is a “daunting task,” according to Doug Hitch, a linguist and computer specialist at YNLC who helped develop the database that generated the print version of the dictionary.

“People have little understanding of how much work is involved in making a dictionary, because for English you can just go into any bookstore and buy an English dictionary.”

Compiling a native language dictionary involves interviewing many fluent speakers, transcribing each word accurately, and cross-checking the meaning of each word as well as its dialectal variants.

Moreover, native languages such as Tlingit are much more complex than English, making them harder to describe with the tools used in the past, explains Hitch.

“Sometimes you have to invent your own terminology because the structures are so different from what you would find in European languages, or even in Chinese or Turkish.”

Cooley says that she didn't realize how complex Tlingit was until she started working on it with Jeff Leer, noting that, as a fluent speaker, “I didn't break it down into categories as a linguist does.”

Since the late 1970s when the Yukon Native Language Centre began facilitating his involvement with Interior Tlingit, Leer has worked with contributors who provided words from all over the Interior Tlingit territory.

Those contributors included the late Elizabeth Nyman of Atlin and the late Mabel Johnson of Teslin. Also contributing in a major way was Lucy Wren of Carcross, a pioneer native language instructor who was honoured with a Commissioner's Award in 1998 for her many years of teaching and promoting Tlingit language and culture.

Since the late 1970s the YNLC has also sponsored Tlingit literacy sessions with Leer, and the materials recorded in those sessions and in special interviews with Tlingit elders also contributed to the dictionary.

During a recent Tlingit session, participants were asked to think of all the place names they could and to use each one in a sentence.

“Around the Teslin and the Nisutlin Rivers there are as many different place names as there are families to go to them,” says Cooley, who attended the session.

“It's always good to work in the language,” she adds, recalling that her family's base camp at the south end of Teslin Lake was called Tlaxhanès’ Khûwu, meaning “kingfisher den.”

Participants were also asked to do some of the writing on the board, as well as practice the diacritics or tone markings.

Hearing the different tones can be difficult but is essential in Tlingit, because the meaning of a word will change depending on what tone is used, Cooley explains.

That's another reason why the dictionary is important — “it's very helpful when we're not too sure of tone markings,” says Cooley.

The dictionary also links different related meanings in one entry, she says, giving the example of the word “hear”, which is linked to “hearing” and “sense of hearing”.

“Dr. Leer has done a very good job on the dictionary, and he always pays tribute to the many elders who contributed,” she says.

“I too would like to thank the elders for passing on the knowledge to put into it.”

Her words echo those of CYFN Grand Chief Ed Schultz, who states in his preface to the dictionary: “We thank (the elders) for their careful and patient work, and for their great dedication to keeping the Tlingit language alive.”

The next step in the development of the dictionary is to generate computer sound files for all the entries, says YNLC director John Ritter.

“We want to have the written documentation supplemented with the actual sounds of the words and sample sentences,” he says.

That's already been done for the Southern Tutchone language, he notes, and the long term goal is to have it available for Tlingit as well.

For Cooley, the dictionary is “very very helpful to me as an instructor,” she says.

“I always wanted to teach my language but I didn't just want to teach the oral part of it; I wanted to learn to write it properly too,” she points out.

“The people I teach say they like being able to see the written words, and the dictionary will help them do that.”

[The Interior Tlingit Noun Dictionary is available from the Yukon Native Language Centre for $50. ynlc.ca]