My Dictionary-Making History

Written by Dyami Millarson

It must have been in 2009 when I made a glossary of Dutch in Excel – I was between 14 and 15 years old back then. I included countless words in this glossary and I indicated to which part of speech each word belongs. This trained me in the recognition of parts of speech; after analysing thousands of words, recognising parts of speech became second nature to me. In other words, my practice with Dutch made the skill of recognising parts of speech intuitive for me, and that is always the level of mastery I wish to reach whenever I learn a new skill. 2009 was really the time when I was familiarising myself with grammar; parts of speech were not my only interest, as I was also interested in morphology, such as all the grammatical cases that exist in human languages. Prior to 2009, I had already been focused on pronunciation, but I focused even more on this in 2009. This would lay the basis for increasingly advanced phonetic studies; my competence in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) also grew over time as my understanding of phonetics improved.

Since I was having trouble with studying languages, I wanted some kind of overview that would help me; I was looking for guidelines for learning languages more efficiently. One thing led to another, and so I found myself drawn to the study of grammar and pronunciation. I believed that if I study the pronunciation and grammar of all languages in general, I will know what to expect whenever studying languages; I wanted to be able to recognise the sounds and grammatical features of all human languages, or to have some understanding of what sounds and grammatical features are to be commonly expected among human languages. This belief has proved to be useful; my studies of grammar and pronunciation have helped me in later years to immediately recognise certain sounds or grammatical phenomena.

In 2008-2009, I was quite focused on comparison between living languages and Latin; I was really interested in linguistic comparison, and so I studied Spanish, Italian and French side by side for comparison with each other and with Latin. While studying this languages, it dawned upon me that they could provide clues as to how Latin was pronounced, and so I wondered: is it possible to use related lanuages for figuring out the pronunciation of Latin? As time went on, my conviction only grew that living descendants of a dead language can be used for figuring out the pronunciation of their dead ancestor. As this realisation became increasingly important in my life, my grammatical focus would eventually make way for a general focus on phonological reconstruction. This was very important in 2010 when I was writing my introduction to Ancient Greek in the Dutch language.

My work on Ancient Greek would remain unfinished since my linguistic knowledge was developing so fast at the time that my writing could not keep up, I read about a hundred books on linguistics and related topics at the time, and I could not afford to keep rewriting my passages over and over again; I had already done that too many times, and so I eventually lost interest in contnuing the endeavour, although it had proven formative. I have recently rediscovered the last draft of my introduction to Ancient Greek, which I had saved on my email before abandoning the project, and since I had already done so much research, I might still consider publishing it someday after editing it with my current insights, which have remained relatively stable.

Becoming like a native speaker of Latin and Ancient Greek had been on my mind in the late 2000s, my Ancient Greek book was naturally focused on the question of how to become like a native speaker of Ancient Greek, and the basic ingredient required for that is of course pronunciation. Acknowledging the importance of pronunciation, I delved into the reconstruction of the pronunciation of Ancient Greek. I made many reconstructions, I compared them with the reconstructions of others, and kept improving my reconstruction skills while I was open to correcting my mistakes; for my aim was to get closer to the truth, I wanted to know the actual pronunciation of Ancient Greek. My path towards mastery of linguistic reconstruction was really about trial and error; it was all about practice, practice, practice, and I surely made tons of mistakes, I had to keep rewriting my texts with phonological hypotheses over and over again, but I did gain a lot from this experience.

Thus far, I had very focused on grammar, pronunciation and reconstruction since I wanted to improve my skills in those areas. Although I say ‘very focused,’ it would be wrong to conclude that I was entirely focused on just those topics; my range of interests was always very wide, and I did not limit my learning to one area. However, the topics I mentioned were recurring themes during my early linguistic studies. While learning about a lot of different things, I would synthesise that information and this is how one thing always led to another. In the early 2010s, I decided to study the Gothic language intensively using the Gothic grammar of Joseph Wright and the Gothic dictionary of G. H. Balg. I copied their works by painstakingly typing their works out in Word and that is where I edited my own versions of their works. Editing Balg’s dictionary was the first time I could apply my knowledge of reconstruction to a dictionary and the same goes for editing Joseph Wright’s grammar. My focus during that time had shifted more from pronunciation to vocabulary, though these were by no means mutually exclusively, they were in fact mutually beneficial (i.e. complementary).

My Gothic studies, which followed my Ancient Greek studies, which followed my Romance studies, proved to the pivotal moment where everything came together; the study of vocabulary was the final puzzle piece. With the natural completion of the trinity of “pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary” and having gained true mastery of all elements of the trinity, this marked the end of the era of my early linguistic studies, and a new era was to begin, which would be marked by an application of all the skills I had acquired with years of dedicated studies before and the new era would also especially be marked by perfecting the aforementioned skills with practice.

Seeing everything come together at some point is truly a wonderful moment; it had taken years of my life to study pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. I moved from one topic to another naturally, and at some point, I had become skilled in these three areas, which are required for learning languages. I had never given up on my dream of learning languages efficiently, and that is why I focused on each element, and at some point, initially without even realising it, I had run through the list of basic skills you need for learning languages with maximum efficiency. It was my ideal to turn my language-learning into a scientific endeavour, and so it was really imperative for me to look into every topic or aspect of language-learning. For me, linguistics has always been closely associated with language-learning because I studied linguistics in tandem with language-learning; I turned language-learning into a study during my quest for acquiring skills useful for learning languages quickly. I might say that I do not have a “method” for learning languages inasmuch as I have a set lf skills for learning languages; my approach to learning each language, or my exact methodology, differs depending on the circumstances, such as the quality of the available materials. In any case, hypothesising and experimenting in a scientific manner have helped a lot over the years; I am also very flad that I focused a lot on linguistic comparison, linguistic reconstruction, IPA, etymology, which would prove very useful to me later.

When I commenced my Frisian studies, I had already laid solid foundations. I began studying Frisian with the intent to perform linguistic comparison and reconstruction, research etymology, transcribe sounds I heard to IPA, and many other activities. Certainly, comparing languages played a big role, and also my interest in the phenomenon of language death, particularly in the reversal of this phenomenon. After reading the works of others on language death, language documentation and saving languages, I had started to formulate ideas about what can be done for saving languages, and just like I would simply capture my idea of how to study languages in the three language-learning topics of “pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary,” I would also seek to capture my idea about language-saving in a simple statement: language-learning is language-saving.

All languages ultimately survive through language-learning; a language can continue existing for as long as there is a steady flow of humans who acquire the skill of mastering that particular language. Languages are living traditions based on learning, and when we stop learning, those languages fade away. Languages are repositories of human learning, and encouraging diligence is therefore the way to keep these living traditions from fading away.

I wondered: how can my high-efficiency language-learning skills be turned to good account? How can it make a positive difference in this world? I had already identified language death as a veritable problem in the world and the more I thought about this problem, the more I believed in language-learning as a force for good; learning a language can be an act of charity. When you learn a language, you become a speaker, and while language death is ultimately the result of the loss of speakers, language death can be reversed when a language acquires new speakers, who encourage others to follow their example of learning the language, or who intend to teach others that language after gaining native-level fluency in it, or who intend to just pass it on to their children, or who embrace all three of the aforementioned options for transmitting the language.

Since dictionaries can be useful tools for language-learning and producing new written materials, I am devoting myself to the compilation of Frisian dictionaries in the English language; my aim is to make the Frisian languages more accessible. The skills I learned in the past are very useful for this. The dictionaries I compile are essentially summaries of my knowledge; they are based on various study notes, glossaries I made for myself, memories of interactions with speakers or memories of what speakers told me, my own experiences actively using the languages in speaking and writing, and my original insights which may, for example, be associated with linguistic comparison, linguistic reconstruction, etymology, or phonetics. Every dictionary will be a story in and of itself; I will narrate the story of every Frisian community through their words.

All my dictionaries will be freely available online to the public. I am trying to do what is in the interest of the languages, and in the interest of the language learners. With this, I am making a philosophical statement. I believe in free access to all because I want to give everyone an equal opportunity to educate themselves and it also greatly benefits the languages which desperately need new speakers. Freely sharing my knowledge, which is based on years of intensive studies, is my gift to everyone; it is my way of showing gratitude to the languages and their communities which taught me so much, and it is also my way to encourage others to follow suit. I have been asked to teach the languages I know, and since I need to make efficient use of my time even though I am eager to teach others what I know, my solution is this: compiling dictionaries containing my knowledge is one of the ways in which I can teach. I perceive blogging and dictionary-writing as mediums for teaching; through my blog articles and through my dictionaries, I can share my knowledge and people will be able to acquire this knowledge at any time they want. Unlike with teaching through Skype lessons, for instance, my knowledge contained in my articles and dictionaries can be passed on when I might be sleeping, walking, taking a shower, working in the garden or doing some other activity; my teaching can, therefore, continue 24 hours a day, and more people can be reached than if I had been teaching them through Skype lessons.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s