How can I make a dictionary for my own language?


In this monthly discussion, we will answer one question about language in Papua New Guinea and beyond. This month, we are looking at how to make a dictionary for your language.
All of us probably remember dictionaries from when we were at school. They had a long list of English words and explained them in English. This is a monolingual dictionary. Another type is a bilingual dictionary, where the explanations are given in another language. This type is especially useful when we are learning another language. For example, a Tok Pisin-English dictionary gives Tok Pisin explanations of English words and English translations or explanations for Tok Pisin words, so it is helpful for foreigners learning Tok Pisin or Papua New Guineans learning English.
Bilingual dictionaries are also useful tools for documenting a language that might otherwise not be documented, especially when a language is in danger of disappearing or when difficult terminology, such as plant and animal names or terminology related to customary practises, is no longer being learned by young people. By putting these important words in a dictionary, they are preserved for future generations and can be retrieved long after a community has forgotten all about them.
At present, many Papua New Guinean languages are in danger of disappearing as young people prefer to use Tok Pisin or English. Even if a language is not actually disappearing, many times only a simple form of the language is used today, with older and more complex ways of speaking disappearing. Some time ago, I received a letter from a young Tolai reader, for example, who was worried about this phenomenon in his Kuanua language. He said that while his grandparents taught him how to speak Kuanua using complicated vocabulary and eloquent oratory, most of the young people his age speak in a simple way, taking many words from Tok Pisin and English. He worries about this and about how his very rich language will be passed on in an impoverished form to future generations.
A dictionary by itself will not reverse this. After all, there are many dead languages with dictionaries. But by recording these learned words in a dictionary, people who do want to learn them in the future will have a resource they can fall back on. But how can someone with no linguistic training do this?
The first step should be to see if there is already some kind of dictionary for your language. One good place to start looking is at You can click on the “Language Resources” link on this ethnologue site to go to a list of materials in and about your language in the OLAC (Open Language Archives Community) database. Often there is a listing for a dictionary, especially for languages. Another place to look is the website of the Australian National University. Although many of the dictionaries they have published through the years are no longer in print, they can still be downloaded for free as pdf’s from this site and read on your computer or tablet.
If your language does not have a dictionary or if there’s a dictionary available but you feel it needs additional data, you can start to do this yourself. Even if you do not have linguistic training, you can make word lists with English or Tok Pisin explanations and translations. It is especially important to have lists related to the environment, customary beliefs and practices, and oral history in your language, as this knowledge is disappearing quickly. Linguists at The Cairns Institute at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, will be happy to upload these onto their website as a resource for both your wantoks and linguists around the world.
Another resource is Wiktionary, an online collaborative tool similar to Wikipedia that allows anyone to create, add to or edit a dictionary in any language. Although learning how to use Wiktionary does take a bit of time and patience, once you know how to edit and add entries, people anywhere can add to the dictionary. Several years ago, I worked with Motu-speaking colleagues at Divine Word University to see how this could work for their language. We set up a Motu Wiktionary dictionary and wrote a number of entries for people to see. You can check it out (and even add to it!) at or read more about the project at, a blog written by DWU lecturer Picky Airi, who participated in the project. An advantage of publishing online with Wiktionary is that the site can be accessed by anyone with a smartphone and, because you do not need to wait until you have a finished product to publish, people can comment on the dictionary as it is being written. It then becomes a true community effort, in keeping with Melanesian custom.
If you want to learn more about dictionaries, SIL PNG offers lexicography (dictionary-writing) workshops from time to time. They have also written several guides about dictionary writing and compilation as well as software to use on a laptop to make dictionary compilation and organisation easier. More importantly, they have a website for public use,, where people with a minimum of linguistic and computer expertise can produce an online dictionary or smartphone dictionary app for their own language. Like Wiktionary, this is organised so that it can be a community project, with people in different places contributing at different times.
Ideally, provincial and national governments would support the documentation of PNG languages and indigenous knowledge through the compilation and publication of dictionaries. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. It is, in fact, ironic that governments in the still colonised parts of Melanesia–Indonesian Papua and French New Caledonia–do much more to support tok ples dictionary compilation than the governments of independent Melanesian countries do. But in the absence of government support, there is still much valuable work that individuals and groups here can do on their own to preserve the words in their languages through dictionaries.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Queensland, and Jakob Fugger Visiting Professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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