[Lexicog] polysynthetic languages and dictionaries

Wayne Leman wayne_leman at SIL.ORG
Wed May 26 04:17:05 UTC 2004

> As far as I can see, there is really only one good solution
> and that is to use an electronic dictionary to which the user
> can give as input a fully inflected form.

Bill, I think this would work well for languages which have only a
"moderate" number of morphemes as part of their polysynthetic words. But
other languages, such as those within the Algonquian language family, have
verbs which often have so many morpheme slot classes that there are
literally millions of combinations which result in fully inflected words,
*unless* we teach users of the dictionaries only to use certain key slot
classes of morphemes, such as pronominal affixes plus verb stems. But
speakers often want to know how to spell words that have many more morphemes
than such "basic" fully inflected forms. Cheyenne verbs, for instance, can
often have each of the following verb slots filled:


And the stem can be complex, productively constructed of common "initials",
"medials", and "finals."

> The dictionary software
> will look this form up, either directly, by virtue of being able
> to store a far larger number of forms than one could reasonably
> print, or by parsing it.

A parsing engine is a possibility for Cheyenne since the allomorphy isn't
too bad. There aren't nearly the irregularities that one finds in some
agglutivative languages.

> Any other approach requires the user to
> have knowledge of the morphological structure of words that those
> without interest and training in the linguistics of the language
> cannot be expected to have.

Including native speakers of the language, unless they have become
sensitized to the basic morphology of their own language.


> I have a paper about this entitled "Making Athabaskan Dictionaries
> Usable" which can be downloaded from my web page:
> http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~wjposer/papers.html.

I think I downloaded this some time ago, and probably even uploaded it to
the Files section of this list's website.

I appreciate your thoughts on this, Bill. You have obviously wrestled with
the issues facing native speaker usage of dictionaries for languages with
complexities not found in many more analytic languages.

Wayne Leman
Cheyenne website: http://www.geocities.com/cheyenne_language

> --
> Bill Poser, Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania

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