Lexicographic Documentation of an Endangered Language: The Case of Ket

Elizaveta Kotoriva and Andrey Nefedov


This presentation aims at describing and analyzing the main problems faced in the course of making a dictionary of Ket, a unique and highly endangered language spoken in Northern Asia. Among the primary issues discussed are the following:

1.Target audience. There are three variants: (1) language community; (2) academic community; (3) both communities. The survey of existing Ket dictionaries and the present sociolinguistic situation in the Ket community has shown that scholars are by and large the main TA for the dictionary. This was also the determinant factor in dealing with various practical dictionary-related questions.

2.Basic vocabulary. The initial wordlist can be based on: (1) translation of the list of the most frequent words from a European language; (2) extraction of the wordlist from a corpus of texts.(3) thematic elicitation from native speakers. The main peculiarity in compiling a wordlist for the Ket dictionary is connected with the fact that it was initially created on the basis of a hand-written card file dictionary (compiled from a collection of field notes).

3.Dictionary entry. It includes two important components –a lemma and a commentary.

3.1 Lemma. Since the dictionary is primarily targeted at scholars, it uses notation based on IPA. Due to diverse orthographic notations used in the field notes as well as in other sources, dictionary representations of the Ket data required unification. As a result, Ket lemmata are provided in strict phonological transcription, while illustrative contexts are represented in a unified phonetic transcription reflecting dialectal differences.

3.2 Commentary. An obligatory and very important component of the commentary is a certain hierarchic arrangement of word meanings reflected in the corresponding meta-language translations. Linguists compiling dictionaries usually rely on the totality of contexts in which the given word can be found, and, if they are native speakers, upon their own intuition. Those who compile dictionaries of unwritten languages are generally not native speakers, and therefore contexts are of an utmost importance. In this case, each single meaning should be confirmed by an appropriate context. The corpus of illustrative examples for the dictionary is based both on published and unpublished sources. In many cases, the commentaries include encyclopedic information, as it helps to understand certain ethnospecific concepts