One of my projects when I retired was to work on the Shilluk (Cøllø) – English Dictionary. In 2015, a large group of men and women fluent in Shilluk collected 15,000 words to go in the dictionary. Over the next couple of years, these words have been entered into a database program. With so many people working on it, the spellings were not consistent, and so one of my tasks is to put together words that are really the same, but have different spellings. Then my colleagues who are native speakers of Shilluk are supposed to figure out which is the correct spelling.
Admittedly over the past two years I have not worked on this regularly. However, I did do a long spurt of work, and finally finished the “A’s”. Shilluk has far too many “A’s” in their language. Just put a different tone on it or an extra length and you can have all kinds of different meanings for a. It can mean ‘my’, but ‘my’ with a plural noun is different. Or it could be a focus marker, either before or after a verb. They are different, of course. They can be a question marker (there are at least 2 of those). Or it could mean “this verb happened in the past and I saw it happen” or just and it continued to be in the past. Just one example I saw today:
áa gwoong áà a ákac yin?
Left edge of a question that dog which Focus Pst-bite you
Which dog bit you?
You see what I’m dealing with here.
Many nouns begin with “a”, so when you come to a word like ‘abany’ one has to make the decision is this the noun “hammer” or is this the verb ‘to hammer’ in which case I need to take off the “a” prefix. It seemed to be very difficult to get our language experts to write the verbs down without that “a” in front. It has caused me no end of grief.
Well, I had finished going through what had been collected at the workshop, but then I had an inspiration. (Note to self: ignore further inspirations) There was a dictionary published in 1927, and it seemed to have a good number of words that did not occur in my dataset. So, I decided to include them, referencing the source. Once again, I started with the “A’s”. Well that took a few weeks. I put this task aside for a while, but have recently returned to it. I moved on to the “b’s”. However, I have a colleague who has been collecting a lot of words with the best speller in the language. So, I asked him if I could enter his data into the database, giving him credit, of course. I started on that task today, and here I am again, in the middle of the “A’s”. In fact, I’m only on the “ab’s”.
Ben just hopes I get to the Y’s before his children start college! I can see this is going to take the rest of my life, but it is a service I can render. If I ever finish or get tired of adding words or fixing spelling, I can always turn to the grammar part of the dictionary and try to explain that. In other words, my retirement activities are not likely to run out before I do.