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Osage Language Department debuts online dictionary

The online dictionary draws from three main sources of Osage language study, the Quintero Collection, Francis La Flesche’s dictionary from the 1900s and transcriptions of the old Osage religious rites and culture, and the materials ethnologist and linguist James Owen Dorsey gathered from the Osage in the 1880s.

In May, the Osage Nation Language Department brought its Osage/English dictionary online. It contains 2,717 words and can be searched starting in either Osage or English. By using the Osage orthography, it offers something more than other Osage dictionary resources.

For months in language class, we’ve heard snippets of the process of developing an online dictionary. On the surface it sounds simple to gather lists of words and definitions, but it’s much more than that.

Faced with the COVID pandemic in 2020, the Language Department began offering classes online and collaborated to produce videos with the Wahzhazhe Cultural Center that simultaneously share Osage culture and language. Teachers and cooks make fry bread, grape dumplings, meat gravy, and peaches. Narrators recite the process in Osage, while the orthography appears on screen. Osages ran, cut meat, and talked about traditional corn, weaving and intergenerational cooking. Animated videos told stories of Coyote and Ant and the Buffalo Bull in Osage. If you’ve seen these, you know they seamlessly convey Osage lifeways while teaching the language and orthography. They’re so well-made, they make you smile.

In September 2020, Vann Bighorse, Osage Nation Secretary of Language, Culture and Education, told the Osage News the Nation was purchasing rights to Carolyn Quintero’s Osage Dictionary so that it could be converted to the Osage orthography. As a language learner, I’ve studied Osage dictionaries that exist, struggling to interpret the phonetic system each uses. The orthography seeks to convey the pronunciation of Osage words easily and consistently. It can be a little daunting at first, but begins to feel intuitive with time.

The department is converting the Quintero dictionary into orthography, but that’s a separate project from the online dictionary that has just gone live, recently appointed Language Department Director Braxton Redeagle told me.

Skye Campbell, a contractor familiar with Dhegiha languages was hired to create a language database in a program called Flex. Then, a team from the Language Department considered terms, different usages, tenses and conjugation.

The online dictionary draws from three main sources of Osage language study, the Quintero Collection, Francis La Flesche’s dictionary from the 1900s and transcriptions of the old Osage religious rites and culture, and the materials ethnologist and linguist James Owen Dorsey gathered from the Osage in the 1880s.

The Quintero Collection contains recordings of interviews that Robert Bristow and Carolyn Quintero conducted with Osage speakers. Braxton Redeagle said he has listened to hours of the tapes to understand how the speakers intended to convey the language.  

Omaha anthropologist Francis La Flesche was focused on the Osage’s historical context, as well as religious and cultural practices, Redeagle said. His dictionary and materials are a window to a much earlier time.

James Owen Dorsey was a skilled linguist, whose slip files, included terms on a notecard with a sentence and conjugated forms. At times he lists cognates, words in the other Dhegiha languages.

The Osage/English dictionary is compiled from these three sources, using additional resources to consider discrepancies. The Osage to English section has a written pronunciation guide for each word, and has more details about the words than the English section.

Finding what you’re looking for may take some poking around. You won’t find “yes” as an entry in the English section. But the Find-function (directions at the beginning of the dictionary can help if you’re not familiar) will search through the text using either Osage or English letters. The orthography audio pronunciation guide isn’t listed at the side of each page, but is available at the beginning of each section.

All this to say, it’s a work under development and the word geeks among us will enjoy creeping through and seeing what we can learn. The Osage Nation’s language apps are a resource for word pronunciation, and I’m hoping the dictionary will add the audio pronunciation of each word.

The Language Department plans to develop components to teach grammar and sentence structure, Redeagle said. Another challenge will be teaching aspect markers to beginning users.

“We wanted to get it up and running,” Redeagle said – and we’re glad to have it.

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Ruby Hansen Murrayhttp://www.rubyhansenmurray.com/
Ruby Hansen Murray is a writer and photographer living in the lower Columbia River estuary. Her work appears in As/Us, World Literature Today, CutBank, The Rumpus, Yellow Medicine Review, Apogee, About Place Journal and American Ghost: Poets on Life after Industry. She’s the winner of the Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She’s been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, Ragdale, Playa, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Storyknife in Homer and the Island Institute in Sitka, AK. She is fellow of the Jack Straw Writers Program, Fishtrap: Writing the West and VONA, who studied at Warren Wilson College and received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. She’s a citizen of the Osage Nation with West Indian roots.
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