LINGUIST List 17.1514

Tue May 16 2006

Review: African Lang/Dictionaries: Jones (2004) (3 books)

Editor for this issue: Lindsay Butler <>

Directory         1.    Dmitry Idiatov, Boko dictionary

Message 1: Boko dictionary
Date: 12-May-2006
From: Dmitry Idiatov <>
Subject: Boko dictionary

Announced at

AUTHOR: Jones, Ross McCallum TITLE: Boko Dictionary SERIES: Languages of the World/Dictionaries 24 PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbH YEAR: 2004

AUTHOR: Jones, Ross McCallum TITLE: Bokobaru Dictionary SERIES: Languages of the World/Dictionaries 30 PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbH YEAR: 2004

AUTHOR: Jones, Ross McCallum TITLE: Busa Dictionary SERIES: Languages of the World/Dictionaries 31 PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbH YEAR: 2004

Dmitry Idiatov, Department of Linguistics, University of Antwerp


The dictionaries provide a lexicographic description of three closely related East Mande languages. They have been compiled by the author over a period of 35 years under the auspices of the Summer Institute of Linguistics and represent an important supplement to the 1998 grammar of this language cluster published by the same author with Lincom GmbH (Jones 1998). The three dictionaries are organized in the same way. They start with a very brief introduction in which the organization of the dictionary is explained, and a few grammatical phenomena relevant for the presentation of the data are mentioned. This is followed by a list of major typological features of the source language and two tables representing pronominal paradigms, which show the complexity typical for East Mande languages. The Bokobaru and Busa dictionaries also include a table with demonstratives. The second part is constituted by the LANGUAGE-English dictionary, which is root based. All non-sentential examples, derivatives and compounds beginning with the main entry word are given as sub- entries. Entries, subentries and examples are in bold, abbreviations are in italics, and the rest is in regular font. The (sub)entries are presented in the practical orthography but are always accompanied by a phonological representation in square brackets when the orthographical form is ambiguous. Synonyms, variants and etymology for loans are often provided (cognate forms in one of the other two languages of the cluster are also subsumed under the label ''etymology''). The Boko and Bokobaru dictionaries include around 7000 entries (subentries and main entries). Busa dictionary includes around 6600 entries (subentries and main entries), although it is only half the size of the other two dictionaries, which indicates that the Busa entries are less elaborate. The third part of each dictionary is made of an English-LANGUAGE index. The LANGUAGE equivalent is provided with a part-of-speech label and a reference to the subentries and main entries, when the equivalent is not the main entry itself, or just to the main entry in the LANGUAGE-English.


Abbreviations used: BK:[page number] -- Boko dictionary, BB:[page number] -- Bokobaru dictionary, BS:[page number] -- Busa dictionary. Examples are put between *...*. IPA characters are adjusted to the ASCII chart.

The dictionaries provide the first, and in all probability the last, lexicographic description of Boko, Bokobaru and Busa. Therefore, their importance cannot be underestimated. They will serve as a useful resource for anybody interested in Boko, Busa, Bokobaru, and in Mande or African languages in general. Linguists interested in lexical typology will surely find interesting data there as well. Although after 35 years of work on a language, one might have expected a more elaborate lexicographic description, the dictionaries are in general of good quality.

The following points of criticism can be mentioned. To start with, the Boko dictionary is advertised (both on the web and on its back cover) to provide ''glosses in English and French'', although only English ones are there. The introductions and grammatical sketches in the dictionaries are too summary and some users may find them difficult to use without having Ross's (1998) grammar at hand. To a certain extent this drawback is compensated by the list of typological features of the three languages and tables with pronominal paradigms.

In all three dictionaries, the number of entries is impressive for a dictionary of an African language. However, to a certain extent, the high number is due to the numerous compounds included as (sub) entries. As a user I would have appreciated if their internal structure were made clear in one way or another. Another point is that many of the compounds do not seem to be particularly lexicalized and their inclusion as (sub)entries in the dictionary is at least questionable, e.g. *gukpe-deo* 'people from the east (lit.: 'east-people/inhabitants')' (BK:67) or *gusia-deo* 'people of darkness (lit.: 'darkness- people/inhabitants')' (BK:67; it is also not very clear to me what the latter compound means exactly). A similar remark can be made regarding the use of illustrative examples. To my mind, they could have been left out when they do not add any relevant morphosyntactic or semantic information to the translation. For instance, for the word *fura* 'cap' an example literally meaning 'Sabi brought a new cap' is given (BB:45).

What I also felt missing in the dictionaries is encyclopaedic information and attention to stylistic nuances of translations. For instance, quite a few examples seem to be translated word-for-word rather than in plain English. Thus, one finds translations like 'Sabi's masculinity is complete' (BB:65) and 'We are the truly circumcised' (BK:165), where I would like to see a cultural comment explaining what is exactly meant or a more liberal translation, followed by a literal translation. Admittedly, in some cases both free and literal translations are provided, as in (BK:156), but strangely enough the literal translation there precedes the example, while the free translation follows. Another example of a too literal translation is 'His male organ is discharging' (BK:64). Here the English translation seems to be of a rather different stylistic register than the Boko sentence. I do not know whether the dictionaries were also meant to be used by the speakers of Boko, Bokobaru and Busa, but should this be the case, I am sure plain English translations would have been more useful to them than such word-for-word approximations. The general lack of stylistic labels in the dictionaries (such as, vulgar, formal, archaic, etc.) is also regrettable. Just as regrettable is the lack of ethnographic comments and more extensive descriptions of many artefacts and concepts typical for the three language communities. No scientific names and descriptions are provided for flora and fauna terms, although in the case of terms designating animals and birds quite specialized English equivalents can often be found.

The way the labels ''vt'' (transitive verb) and ''vi'' (intransitive verb) are used in the dictionaries is not completely clear to me. As in other Mande languages, the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs in Boko, Bokobaru and Busa is very straightforward and easy to make: If the verb has a preposed object then it is transitive, in all other cases it is intransitive. Both transitive and intransitive verbs can also have a postposed indirect object regularly marked by a postposition. As a rule, omission of the direct object of a transitive verb is not allowed. In BB:106-107 we can find the following (sub)entries. On the one hand, there is *le ke* 'sharpen' labelled as ''vt'' and indeed, it needs a preposed object *fee le ke* 'sharpen a knife'. On the other hand, there is *le die ...-ne* 'give instructions' also labelled as ''vt'', but it allows only for a postposed object marked by the postposition *ne*. At the same time, there is *le ku ... -n* 'interfere in, involved (be)' which is also used without a preposed object but is labelled as ''vi''. Another point here is that in all three cases *le* 'mouth, opening' is itself an (incorporated) object of the verb.

The root principle of organization of the dictionaries is sometimes a bit uncomfortable. For instance, in the Boko dictionary *lán ...-wa* 'as if' is put under *lá1* 'as, since' on p.98, whereas I would have looked for it on p.100, according to the alphabetical order. Furthermore, it is not always clear why entries are organized the way they are. Are they organized from a basic, prototypical meaning to secondary meanings (e.g., metaphoric extensions), or from the most common meaning to less common ones, or from an etymologically first meaning to the derived meanings? Consequently, it is not always easy to find your way in such an entry. This is particularly the case with verb entries, such as the entry *mo* in BK:114 organized as follows: 1) 'swallow', 2)'come', then subentries in the following order 'swallow whole' -- 'bring to' -- 'gulp down' -- 'bring, come with' -- 'be enough' -- 'arrival' -- 'arrival time' -- 'swallow down' -- 'oral' -- 'bridesmaid'. Admittedly, I may be too demanding here. People tend to forget how difficult it is to organize all your entries in a clear and straightforward way.

Typos are not numerous. The typeface is clear and legible with boldface (sub)entries and examples. The nice cover is also an aesthetic plus as compared to the usual Lincom publications. I particularly appreciated the presence of phonological transcriptions for main entries, as well as references to synonyms and source forms of loanwords. The availability of an English-LANGUAGE index is more than welcome. Last but not least, I was positively impressed by the wealth of vocabulary treated in the dictionaries. Thus, ideophones and flora and fauna terms, which are often underrepresented in lexicographic publications, can be found in abundance in the dictionaries under review. The dictionaries even include place and person names. Subsuming, I find the three lexicographic descriptions under review to be of good quality. They will surely serve as an invaluable source of information to all those interested in Boko, Busa and Bokobaru.


Jones, Ross McCallum (1998). The Boko/Busa language cluster. München: Lincom GmbH [LINCOM Studies in African Linguistics, 30]

I am a PhD student at the University of Antwerp. My current research focus is on typological aspects of interrogativity, especially interrogative pro-words. I am also interested in descriptive linguistics and lexicography, with special emphasis on Mande languages, such as Bamana and Toura. I am working on a Toura-French dictionary. The latter work stems from the project on "Lexicology of Eastern Mande languages in the context of Mande linguistic comparison" ( funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The first results of this project have been recently put on the web at