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The Wagiman Electronic Dictionary

Last week, I undertook a brief fieldtrip to Pine Creek and Kybrook Farm, Northern Territory, to present the completed Wagiman Electronic Dictionary to the Wagiman community.

It has been a long time coming as several of us have been working on this dictionary in our spare time for the last six months, and so it felt especially good to be able to see a finished product, and better yet, to give it back to the community. In that six months, we successfully integrated recent research into Wagiman plants and animal species by Glenn Wightman, as well as very recent work done by the CSIRO on fish species in the Daly River. The electronic dictionary now contains all that up-to-date information. We also managed to produce sound files for the majority of lexical entries in the dictionary. There are around 1250 sound files in the dictionary altogether, totalling some 15 minutes of high-quality audio.

Lardukkarl nganing-gin using the Wagiman mobile phone dictionary

Lardukkarl nganing-gin using the Wagiman mobile phone dictionary

The Wagiman community are very pleased with the dictionary, and all enjoyed listening to the marluga¹ who recorded each of the sounds. The Wagiman people were also excited to see the mobile phone version of the dictionary. It’s not quite as complete as the computer based dictionary; it contains far fewer sound files (around 300), and doesn’t contain the sometimes lengthy dictionary comments that accompany many lexical entries. This is an unfortunate constraint of the size of a standard mobile phone screen — too much information can be hard to navigate through.

I also met with representatives of the Northern Territory Department of Education, who were interested in supporting the dictionary and possible collaboration into the future. The Wagiman have given the tick, and the Department are going to go ahead and install the dictionary on all the computers in the schools in Katherine as a first step. We’re hoping that we’ll also be able to get the Northern Territory Library on our side and install the dictionaries on library computers. That way, most computers accessed by children and young adults in the area will have the Wagiman dictionary installed.

In addition to the computer- and mobile phone-based dictionaries, we have also been looking to produce a printed version. Hopefully the Wagiman community will be able to take advantage of the increased interest in Indigenous languages recently, and sell copies of the dictionary to tourists through various shops in Katherine, Pine Creek and Darwin.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of this particular project is the demonstration that accessible electronic dictionaries for Indigenous languages can be produced for relatively little extra effort, provided that the language in question has been adequately described. Although for many languages, this remains a significant obstacle.

The Wagiman people have given us permission to allow the public to download a demonstration version of the Kirrkirr dictionary, which we will try to have ready soon. A full version will be available upon request to the Wagiman community.

¹Marluga, (nom.) Old man.

Pfed in New York Times

James has appeared in an article in the New York Times this morning talking about mobile phone-based dictionaries.

The article focuses on endangered languages and some of the steps being taken internationally to combat language death. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

Of course, online resources are useful only to communities with Internet access. Communities without that access, like the Kim, still require books to be printed, and recordings to be copied onto CDs or tapes.

Holding more promise are programs that put electronic dictionaries on mobile phones. James McElvenny, a linguist at the University of Sydney, has led the development of software to help revitalize vanishing languages. Mr. McElvenny has been working with Aboriginal groups like the Dharug of Sydney to give learners, many of them no older than 16, a portable reference that supplies the definition and the sound of words that are otherwise no longer spoken, because Dharug is a dead language.

“A lot of the older members are technophobic,” he said, “but the kids are really getting into it.”

Sydney University Linguistics Department Seminar

This is probably very short notice, but James and I will be presenting Wunderkammer, WKimport and the project in general at a Linguistics Department seminar tomorrow evening at the University of Sydney. Here are the details:

Monday 1st June
4 pm – 5.30 pm
Eastern Avenue Seminar Room 119

Wunderkammer, mobile phone dictionaries and the Wagiman electronic dictionary

James McElvenny and Aidan Wilson
The University of Sydney


In this talk we will demonstrate Wunderkammer, software that allows electronic dictionaries to be stored and displayed on mobile phones. We will show how we have used the software to produce a mobile phone dictionary of Wagiman, an Australian language from the Daly River Region in the Northern Territory. We will also discuss how other linguists can use the software to make their own electronic dictionaries available on mobile phones, as well as the future possibilities for dictionary delivery in technologically under-resourced areas.

Slowly but surely

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working my way through my several hours of Wagiman recordings from my recent fieldtrip, all the time remarking at how excellent they are. It’s a combination of a good recording device; a Roland Edirol R-4, a great microphone with a proven track record in the field; a Røde NT41, and experience in microphone placement and input gain control2. I’m finding the best tokens of all the words I recorded for eventual insertion into the electronic versions of the Wagiman dictionary, including a Kirrkirr instance, and a mobile phone dictionary.

Splitting the recordings into some 1500 individual sound files is a time-consuming occupation, and unfortunately, as it’s the only one of my many jobs that isn’t actually paying me anything, higher priority tasks often win out.

Eventually though, we’ll have a Wagiman electronic dictionary ready for distribution, and a down-sampled version of the same ready for installation on mobile phones. So keep posted!

[Cross-posted at matjjin-nehen]

  1. Both of which were loaned from PARADISEC. []
  2. Gain control was really key in the end, as it was raining most of the time,which would cause low-level hiss if the gain were set too high. Luckily my speaker didn’t mind talking directly and loudly into the microphone, so I was able to keep the gain right down to stop too much ambient noise getting in. []

Wagiman and Dalabon Dictionaries

I’ve been in the Territory for a week now, mainly working on the content of the Wagiman Electronic Dictionary and recording sound files for it. But I’ve also been canvassing interest in the dictionary from the members of the community. Thus far the reception seems positive; the school-age children were keen to see it and give it a go, and the adults agree that using mobile phones is a great way of getting their kids to learn such information.

Last weekend I was in Katherine seeing some linguist friends, and while I was there I had an informal meeting with someone from the Northern Territory Department of Education, and they too were interested in the mobile phone dictionary as well as the Kirrkirr dictionary, so much in fact, that we’ve undertaken the job of producing a dictionary of Dalabon – more on that later. I foresee that, if this takes off, the Kirrkirr dictionary would be used at school, either on the ubiquitous Smartboards with the whole class, or individuals working at computers with the software loaded, but it would be used in addition on the students’ mobile phones in their own time, perhaps to complete set homework tasks.

Even if four hours per day of education in the Northern Territory is mandated to being English-only, thanks to Marion Scrymgour, language education teachers could capitalise on the remaining one hour of tuition per day by using an interactive and visually rich program such as Kirrkirr.

I had the brainwave, while I was showing off the software in Katherine, that the dictionary need not translate between Wagiman and English on its own, but it could also contain the Kriol translations of Wagiman words. It would then be a matter of selecting a different stylesheet within Kirrkirr to display either the Wagiman-English or the Wagiman-Kriol version. It would take a bit of work on my part to translate the entire dictionary into Kriol, especially since it’s a language that I don’t speak, but with help from someone it could quite easily be done. Wamut has already helped me with the first bit of the dictionary to undergo trilingual representation, with the entry for Ngal-martdiwa ‘Old woman’ within the semantic domain ‘Human classification’; this now becomes ‘Olgaman’ in the semantic domain ‘Ola wed bla pipul’. Wamut also pointed out that Kriol would map much more closely to Wagiman than English would, most obviously in areas such as kinship terms (dedi versus uncle), semantically ambiguous verb meanings (hit versus kill) and free pronouns (melabat versus us).

It wouldn’t be a complicated computation task either; the MDF specifications for Shoebox/Toolbox already support multiple content languages, using codes such as \ge for ‘gloss English’ as opposed to \gn ‘gloss national’ which could be taken to mean Lingua Franca. In an XML formatted dictionary, it would simply mean adding another XML chunk for definition, and call it something like <MeaningsKriol>.

I mentioned the possibility of a Dalabon dictionary earlier, so I might explain what’s going on. The representative from the NT Education Department has a potential Dalabon project in the pipeline, and having a visual dictionary paired with a mobile phone version of the same would be immensely helpful for that effort. I’ve contacted all the authors and have received permission to go ahead with this. With any luck, the current dictionary (a backslash coded text file) is complete and consistent and won’t require any actual work on our part, besides configuring the file that translates from backslash codes to XML. But that’s James’ domain. Finding sound files and inserting them should be¹ the only complicated task, but this we’ll have to leave to one of the linguists working with Dalabon. For now though, a user-friendly, visual version of what the three authors painstakingly produced would be a great way for Dalabon kids to engage with their language again.

¹­Yeah, ‘should be’, but of course things always go wrong.


Last night, as I waited at the local Indian take away for my palak naan to cook, I began entertaining myself in a way that, in retrospect, makes me think ‘wow, this is cool’.

With James’ expertise and programming, we’ve managed to produce a first generation mobile phone dictionary for Wagiman – it’s not for wider circulation yet as there are some serious corrections that need to be made first – and to test it I installed it on my own phone. Of course we have had mobile phone dictionaries of other languages, most notably Kaurna and Dharug, but this is the first time that I’ve had a chance to use such a dictionary of a language with which I’m familiar.

So while waiting for my naan, I was scrolling through the list of words under some random search string, ‘bar’ I think it was, stopping at each word I didn’t previously know or couldn’t remember and trying to learn it. I can tell already that this is going to be useful for me to get Wagiman back into my head, and useful for partial speakers to brush up on a language which perhaps they don’t speak as well as they should.

I don’t intend to say I was ever doubtful of the coolness of a mobile phone dictionary, just that it’s quite different when you get to use it yourself as it’s intended to be used, and when you derive some benefit from it. I’m looking forward to being able to show it off during my fieldtrip next month.

Yakgarra (interjection) ‘Wow!’

Welcome to the Project

Welcome to the website and blog of the Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries (rather Germanically acronymised to Pfed). This project aims to provide software and resources to create free, open source dictionaries.

Here we will publish software, documentation and instructions useful for creating useful, multimedia-rich, multi-format dictionaries, as well as (hopefully) regular postings from us as we navigate the world of electronic lexicography.