The Umatilla Dictionary: A Project of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Noel Rude

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University of Washington Press (2014)
640 pages

Review by Jule Gómez de García

The Umatilla Dictionary is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the Umatilla language in particular and the Sahaptian language family in general. Indeed, the front matter in the dictionary and the dictionary entries themselves provide an extremely effective model of a comprehensible and useful presentation of grammatical and lexical information.

Importantly, the front matter contains a recognition of the speakers who contributed their time, their efforts, their words, and their “command of the ‘old language.’” Their presence and energy is felt throughout the dictionary and render it a document of historical and cultural value in addition to its linguistic significance.

The brief section describing Umatilla grammar offers an understandable description of the Umatilla sound system. Particularly useful are the English words given as correlates to the Umatilla vowels and consonants, which allow the dictionary user to honor the language as it is spoken. These examples are augmented by phonetic equivalents used by linguists. The authors have also given extensive examples of sound patterns that change the meanings of words—enough examples that the non-linguist can, with some study and engaged fun at puzzle-solving, interpret how differences in sound patterns equate to differences in meaning.

The front matter also contains excellent, if brief, descriptions of the verb and noun systems, but the brief descriptions are illustrated by ample paradigms and example words, phrases, or sentences. How cultural phenomena are encoded is carefully included in these grammatical descriptions. For example, an extensive list of Umatilla kinship terms includes the very specific terminology for “Cross-Generational In-laws” and “Cross-sex sibling-in-law (while connecting kin lives)” with another chart for terminology used for in-laws after the death of the connecting kin, again emphasizing the link between language and culture.

Each dictionary entry includes a lexical category (noun, intransitive or transitive verb, adjective, etc.) and example sentences taken from texts transcribed from recordings of one of the members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Language Program and Rude, the co-author. These example sentences not only provide yet more cultural information, but also assure the reader that the entries represent the language as it is used, rather than as it might be elicited by a non-speaker interested in language details not found in general usage. Words or affixes that might take different forms in usage are amply described, generally accompanied by paradigms in table form set directly into the entry.

These tables allow us to see immediately not only how the form is used, but also the number and kinds of variations possible, as well as the systematic linguistic conditions that prescribe a given variation. For example, the basic translocative directional –kik (which “implies ‘further on’ from some point already away from the speaker”) has variants for the plain, progressive, and habitual in the three tenses of past, present, and future.

In addition to the general dictionary entries, the authors have included Nez Perce equivalents for each entry. Linguists (who are here defined as “avid students and users of language and languages”) interested in comparative linguistic analysis will value these.

Importantly, the Umatilla Dictionary is both useful and extremely usable for those interested in the Umatilla language and culture. This is a dictionary carefully created by and for its users. It will serve not only to preserve the Umatilla language, but it will also be a valuable research tool for the current and future generations of Umatilla speakers.

Jule Gómez de García, Ph.D., is a professor of linguistics at California State University – San Marcos and a co-author of Dictionary of Jicarilla Apache: Abáachi Mizaa Ilkee’ Siijai.

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