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Can You Say "Internet" in Ojibwe?

Preserving a living language
November 21, 2014

First, draw a mental image of a dictionary. Next, delete the line drawings inside. In fact, delete the pages and the cover, too. Give what is left magical powers to talk and conjure up thousands of images and insights into a disappearing culture.

You now have a pretty good understanding of the new online Ojibwe People's Dictionary, a technological marvel created by the Department of American Indian Studies and the Minnesota Historical Society.

The endeavor is important for its practical use; it also sets a world standard for how indigenous languages will be preserved in the future.

This innovative dictionary links to photos and videos of Ojibwe culture, plus up to 60,000 audio clips—from entry words to spoken sentences and paragraphs. It has more words than any previous Ojibwe dictionary, and includes a section explaining how this complex and exotic language is put together.

Portrait: Brenda Child
Project manager Brenda Child: "We are bringing together more than just a dictionary.
Photo by Brady Willette

It will help preserve the language, and also help people learn Ojibwe and better understand Ojibwe culture, says Brenda Child, associate professor of American Studies and project manager for the dictionary.

"We're kind of comparing it to what people say about worrying about plant species, animal species, biodiversity. People believe that linguistic diversity is very important in world knowledge systems because with the loss of languages, so goes knowledge....[It] is a way to bring the language back in conversation. We're not interested in the language going away."

Ojibwe is one of the most widely spoken Native American languages. About 200,000 people identify as Ojibwe in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in Canada, and Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota in the United States.

But fewer and fewer are native speakers, and the language is in danger of dying. Those tens of thousands of speakers in the United States and Canada who live in the modern world want to adapt their language to describe it.

Portrait: John Nichols
Project head John Nichols: "The whole crux of the project is listening to voices. They give it life."
Photo by Brady Willette

The project began with a conversation Child had with colleagues at the Minnesota Historical Society and Professor of American Indian Studies John Nichols, author of the widely used A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. The time was ripe for this kind of major collaboration, they realized, because Minnesota's new Legacy Amendment provides resources for cultural projects.

"By the next summer we had funding and began working on this extraordinary dictionary," says Child. "With the legacy funds we were able to dig right in."

So far the dictionary researchers have incorporated the 7,000 entries of Nichols' printed dictionary. And they have used artifacts in the collection of the Historical Society to illustrate dictionary entries and extend the description of words into Ojibwe culture.

Child, for example, grew up listening to her mother, aunts, uncles, and grandmother speaking the language. But "all of us, the generation that came after, our first language has been English," she says. "Many of our students never heard their tribal language until they came to the University of Minnesota."But here's the most critical task: interviewing and collecting audio clips from fluent Ojibwe speakers to capture vocabulary and grammar of a language in danger of vanishing as native speakers pass on.

One featured Ontario elder is still living the outdoor life of crafts, including trapping. Her contributions are particularly valuable because she uses the vernacular of the traditional lifestyle, a vocabulary gradually passing from everyday use. Says Child, "There are certain older things about the way she speaks the language because of her maintenance of these cultural activities that we don't hear in the communities here in Minnesota."Even in the early version of the dictionary now online (see, you can look up a word in Ojibwe or English and link to an audio clip to hear the word spoken. In many cases, different speakers from different communities pronounce the word—differently. "The great thing about the dictionary is that you can hear several dialects," says Child.

But there's a challenge beyond recording current and historic usages, and that is figuring out how to talk about modern-world phenomena. For example, how would one say "on the Internet" in Ojibwe?

Answering questions like that allows us to understand how Ojibwe might accommodate new things and concepts if the language is to live. In the process it opens a space in our English-word-filled brains to see the world through very different eyes.

And this is where the work of Michael Sullivan comes in. He's a graduate student in linguistics and one of the community language curators working on the Ojibwe People's Dictionary. "There are some great words we happen to uncover when persuading our elders to hypothesize what a certain word might be," he says. "The beauty of language is creativity."

One of his favorites is "school dance"—gikinoo'amaadii-zhooshkozidebagizowin.

"That's right, 14 syllables!" he says. Literally, it means "school slide feet dance," to distinguish from the stomping style of traditional dance.

Not the usual take on school dances!

Another is waasamoo-asabing. Waasamo usually means things that are gas or electric powered. Asab is a net. Waasamoo-asabing means "on the Internet."

"Call me biased or ethnocentric, but the language itself is so wonderfully and beautifully complex," Sullivan says. "Promoting Ojibwe is fun and makes people's heads spin. Even younger speakers are getting in on the fun."

In fact, Child says, dictionary researchers are seeking foundation grants to begin work on a children's dictionary that can be used in K-12 education and preschool immersion classes. "Our problem is we keep envisioning new things."

So far, the reaction of Ojibwe communities, especially among community elders, has been enthusiastic.

"If you look at the university and the historical society, there is a history of feeling like our community interests have often been ignored," says Child. "And if you look at a project like this—wow, the University of Minnesota is doing something really good—something useful, something timely, something important for Ojibwe community life here in Minnesota and beyond the borders of the state."