Decolonizing dictionaries as tools for indigenous languages

For half a year, 2019 Wall Scholar Mark Turin told strangers in Nepal that he was a water well.

Wanting to respond to people’s greetings with ‘I am very well’, Turin, an associate professor in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies (CIS) and Anthropology, had looked up the Nepali word for ‘well’ in a dictionary and found just a one-word English translation. “For six months, I had been saying “म इनार छु” which makes no sense and essentially means ‘I am a water well.’”

This is just one example of the kind of misuse and mistakes that can be found with everyday dictionaries. The importance of rectifying these issues is heightened for endangered and Indigenous languages. Turin was interviewed for this story that discusses the value of dictionaries and their accuracy.

Turin's research and writing focus on language endangerment, documentation and revitalization; language policies and politics; orality, archives, digital tools and technology, and Indigenous methodologies and decolonial practice broadly conceived. Turin is also the recipient of a 2019 Wall Solutions award on the subject of "Mapping Linguistic Diversity in a Globalizing World through Open Source Digital Tools."