Theresa Sepulveda '11 Creates Online Talking Dictionary for Endangered Language

Maki Somosot '12

Theresa Sepulveda '11 Creates Online 
Talking Dictionary for Endangered Language

by Maki Somosot '12
2/8/2011

talking dictionary
A search for "canoe" on the English-Mantukar talking dictionary returns 15 entries, each with information about the word or sentence and an audio file of it being spoken.

Theresa Sepulveda '11, a linguistics major with a pre-med minor from Raymond, Me., recently launched an online talking dictionary for the Matukar language, an Austronesian language spoken in two towns in Papua New Guinea. With 3045 entries and 3035 audio files using field recordings from Associate Professor of Linguistics K. David Harrison, the dictionary includes basic vocabulary, verb paradigms, and sentence structures with equivalent translations provided in English and Tok Pisin, the most widely spoken language in the country. Sepulveda hopes that the dictionary's technological aspects will encourage younger generations to participate more actively in the language's future preservation and transmittance.

"Just searching a simple word like 'canoe' or 'coconut' will give us an eye-opener as to what information could be lost if Matukar-Panau dies," Sepulveda says. "Speakers can also use it as a language documentation resource that may be continually updated."

With only 430 remaining speakers, including young children and elders, Mantukar is in constant danger of extinction because of the dominant spread of English and Tok Pisin. Matukar, or "Panau" according to native speakers, alludes to the first spoken words of their ancestors upon arriving on the island. The language is spoken by a more recently-arrived migrant population and thus differs in structure from other Papuan languages.

"Modern technology has provided new language domains in the form of email, texting, and even Facebook and Twitter," adds Sepulveda. "Now, language files from one community can be found and heard by a person on the other side of the world almost instantly if they are on the internet."  

Sepulveda conceived of the project to "support the [local] community who were [themselves] motivated to revitalize their language," she says, and worked closely with Harrison and other linguists at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

Sepulveda wrote her thesis on Matukar as a case study in language survival and technology's potential to aid language preservation. Before her work, it had never been written or recorded, and had no documentation. Now, as the first scholarly paper [doc] in existence on the language, and with plans to host it online by the Department of Linguistics, it will have a global reach. Sepulveda graduates this spring and wishes to continue supporting language revitalization efforts in rural ethnic communities.