Dictionary-making workshop for the Gusilay in Senegal

Kevin Warfel
Words are the building blocks of any communication. Assisting a language community like the Gusilay to capture the words and meanings of their language can have a number of benefits.

(March 2017) In the town of Thionck-Essyl in the south of Senegal, speakers of the *Gusilay language are celebrating the success of the recent Rapid Word Collection (RWC) workshop, an updated approach to jump-starting the making of a dictionary. The workshop was publicized on the local radio station, including interviews of participants who voiced the importance of their collective work. The broadcast resulted in a room full of Gusilay speakers at the closing ceremony, ready to join the celebration.

Ibrahima Diatta and SIL’s David Wilkinson began plans in early 2016 to create the first Gusilay-French dictionary for the 20,000+ Gusilay speakers. This workshop was a step toward fulfilling the aspirations of the Gusilay—to develop and gain recognition for their language.

Held 7–25 February 2017, the workshop began with three days of training led by SIL consultant Kevin Warfel. Enthusiastic Gusilay participants worked hard each day. Among this core group were several members of the Gusilay literacy organization, a linguistics student, and a member of the community who evolved into the chief glosser (translator), even though no one had envisioned him in that role prior to the training period. He proved to be one of the most dependable participants, even setting the precedent for taking folders full of language data home to work on after the normal workshop hours.

Throughout the workshop the progress meter graphic (center) used "rice fields" with each row representing 500 words collected.
Click image to enlarge

Why collect words? Words are the building blocks of any communication. They contain information not only about language, but also about culture. Many minority languages around the world, like the Gusilay, are hampered by the lack of a dictionary in the language. Assisting a language community to capture the words and meanings of their language can have a number of benefits.

In addition to facilitating the collection of many words in a short time, the systematic RWC method also brings to light various aspects of the culture—as much by words that don’t initially show up as by words that do. For example, in this workshop, there were no Gusilay words collected in the semantic categories for ‘low status,’ ‘gambling’ and ‘substance/matter.’ At the same time, new domains needed to be added to ensure that participants did not overlook words, such as the names of forests and the cultivation of two different types of palm trees and their fruit.

Gusilay glosser (translator) Maw Préfet working with SIL consultant Kevin Warfel.

As a result of the drive and dedication of the core group, the original goal of recording 10,000 words was surpassed by day nine of the eleven-day workshop, with the group ultimately achieving a total of 12,485 words at the end of the final day! By the end of the workshop, most of the recorded words had been translated and typed into the FLEx database, with a resulting mock-up dictionary printed in time for the closing ceremony. This workshop also offered insight and experience to several non-Gusilay speakers who observed some sessions to learn more about the RWC method and its impact. A mother-tongue speaker of the Karon language (from the same ‘Jola’ language family) attended the training phase and several days of the workshop with a view to starting a dictionary project among his own language community. He commented: “I have learnt much that I can begin with and look forward to getting in touch with [SIL Senegal].”

Two linguists from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London attended one day of the workshop and received a detailed introduction to RWC workshops by Warfel. Tim Gaved with SIL Senegal assisted during the entire event, providing him with on-the-job training for leading RWC workshops in future Senegal projects.

During the months following the workshop, a smaller group of Gusilay speakers will participate in the editing stage—checking spellings, verifying and improving the French glosses and completing the remaining 80 semantic domains from the possible total of 1,792. As words are edited and verified, the resulting database will be uploaded to Webonary.


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