New dictionary describes Owa, a language of the Solomon Islands

A translation project obviously includes a process of searching for words to express ideas, and comparing words to find how they are similar or different. From the translators’ perspective, recording words more systematically was an aid to good translation. From the translation committee’s perspective, it seemed better to grab the opportunity to create two useful products rather than just one.

- Greg Mellow, compiler and editor of A Dictionary of Owa

(December 2013) A new dictionary describes the language and culture of a Solomon Islands’ community. A Dictionary of Owa: A Language of the Solomon Islands, just published by De Gruyter, is the result of many years of dedicated work by a team that included both Owa speakers and linguistic advisors.

The original spark of interest in an Owa dictionary came in 1998, with a dictionary workshop sponsored by SITAG.* The Owa Translation Committee, consisting of representatives from the three main Owa-speaking communities (Star Harbour, Santa Catalina and Santa Anna), approved the addition of a dictionary to the other language development projects then in process. In 2000 Dr. Andrew Pawley, an Emeritus Professor at Australia National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, agreed to collaborate and provide direction for the project.

Many Owa speakers contributed to the growing dictionary, but the main contributors throughout the process were the translators working on the Owa New Testament, published in 2005. The project began as a simple wordlist, with vocabulary noted during translation sessions. Over time, those working on the dictionary developed a more systematic way of cataloging the collected words, making use of SIL’s Toolbox software. Translation team members also crafted the example sentences used to illustrate natural usage and collocations (words that pair together, such as ‘drink’ and ‘water’ vs. ‘drink’ and ‘sandwich’).

With the dictionary nearing completion in 2008, Professor Pawley requested a description of Owa grammar, which would be included in the introduction. Linguistics consultant René van den Berg and translation advisor Paul Unger, both of SIL, contributed valuable guidance to this portion of the dictionary. Greg Mellow was an advisor to the translation team and served as the main compiler, formatter and editor for the dictionary. Mellow comments, “I found it fascinating to see more clearly how big concepts of love, life and death, and also small details of life are expressed in the coherent structure of the language.”

Features of the Owa dictionary include:

  • Names of many local flora and fauna
  • English-Owa Index
  • A listing of words according to semantic domains
  • Complex nouns (set phrases), antonyms, synonyms and encyclopedic information
  • Line drawings
  • A brief sketch of the sound system, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, logical relations and discourse genres of Owa

While this edition of the dictionary will be primarily of interest to an academic audience, other related works will contribute to local language development efforts. A local edition of the dictionary is planned, as well as a language workbook for school teachers and students. The tri-lingual workbook (Owa, Solomon Islands Pijin and English) will explain important features of each language and will serve as a helpful resource for local literacy and multilingual education efforts.

With more than seventy languages, the Solomon Islands is a nation rich in linguistic diversity. The country is part of Melanesia, a group of islands that are home to nearly twenty percent of the world’s living languages



Members of the Owa translation and dictionary team work on translation, word gathering and data entry.


*In the Solomon Islands, SIL serves as SITAG (Solomon Islands Translation Advisory Group).


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