On Making A Wapichan Dictionary

Pauline Melville in the FT:

The Wapisiana are savannah Indians. Their territory stretches from the south of Guyana over and into the north of Brazil. Wapisiana is one of two Arawak languages in Guyana. Like many of South America’s indigenous languages, it is under threat from the languages of the old imperial powers – in this case English and Portuguese – and from an invading way of life that has been imposed uneasily on the culture. School lessons are taught in English and, until recently, pupils speaking Wapisiana were punished.

Colette Melville is a sturdily built, lively Wapisiana woman, as hard-working as you have to be when there is no running water or electricity in the house. Wapisiana is her first language. When I suggested that we put some sort of dictionary together, she was enthusiastic. But neither of us had the skills of a lexicographer, or knew anything about phonetics or how to agree on orthography with a language that was barely written down. Even the name Wapisiana is not standardised: Wapishana, Wapityan, Wapitschana, Matisana, Vapidiana, Uapixana have all appeared in literature. In the end we just started writing down words in notebooks. “The correct pronunciation is ‘Wapichan’,” said Colette. “And we are the Wapichannao – the people who come from the west. We’ll call it the Wapichan dictionary.”

Samuel Johnson has another definition of the dictionary-maker: “A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” We set about the drudgery.