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Choctaw dictionary gets much-needed update after more than 100 years

  • Four Years In The Making:
    Four Years In The Making:  While at home during the pandemic, William & Mary Chancellor Professor of English and Linguistics Jack Martin finalized work on a Choctaw dictionary project he started with students four years ago. Pictured is a page of the original Choctaw dictionary, which Martin and his students updated to reflect current times.  Submitted photo
  • Four Years In The Making:
    Four Years In The Making:  Being confined mostly to home over the last few months has allowed W&M Chancellor Professor of English and Linguistics Jack Martin to take up some new hobbies, like vegetable gardening, and it has given him a chance to complete some work projects that had gone neglected for years.  Submitted photo
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Like many others, William & Mary Chancellor Professor of English and Linguistics Jack Martin is doing his best to make the most out of the difficult circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Being confined mostly to home over the last few months has allowed Martin to take up some new hobbies, like vegetable gardening, and it has given him a chance to complete some work projects that had gone neglected for years. 

One such project was a revised Choctaw dictionary that sat on his desk for more than four years before he resumed work on it in March.  

Choctaw is a major Indigenous language of the South, spoken by a portion of the more than 200,000 members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the 10,000 members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.    

“There’s that saying, ‘Turn lemons into lemonade,’” said Martin, who specializes in language documentation of a family of Muskogean languages that includes Choctaw and Creek. “You can’t do your first choice thing, so you try to at least have something that is profitable.” 

Martin blocked off a few hours a day to work on the project. That entailed reviewing and editing almost 20,000 word entries over 370 pages and inputting everything into a database. 

After 40 days, he finally completed the project. 

“It sat on my desk for about four years because it required such a huge amount of time,” Martin said. “I had this abundance of time during the pandemic, and that’s what I latched on to.” 

While on sabbatical, Martin made trips over the last year to Oklahoma to work on a Creek language project that required face-to-face interviews. He returned home in February right before COVID-19 rocked the country and stay-at-home orders were put into place. 

While at home, Martin has sought ways to stay productive. 

“I decided to shift gears and try to do projects where I don’t need to work with a speaker, so that’s how I started working on this Choctaw project,” Martin said. 

“It was a perfect project, because it’s really hard to concentrate at home. What I found is if I had something that required very little concentration, like editing, then it was perfect. I could do that for a couple hours a day at least.” 

Martin’s recently completed Choctaw dictionary project built on previous work with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. 

The Choctaw Nation recruited Martin six years ago to help create a new learner’s dictionary of its most-commonly used words and phrases. During the process of creating this document, Martin realized the original Choctaw dictionary, which was written around 1850 and published in 1915, needed updating. 

New words and revised spellings were necessary to reflect current times. 

“I saw how frustrated they were with it,” Martin said of the original dictionary. “It didn’t even have a word for train in it. This blew my mind, because this is one of the largest tribes in the country, and for 100 years their dictionary has been spelled in a way that doesn’t reflect how they themselves spell. It drives them crazy and it drove me crazy.” 

With the help of students from his Historical Linguistics course, Martin edited the dictionary to reflect the Choctaw Nation’s current spelling and vocabulary. 

When the work was completed, it needed to be edited and uploaded into a database. That part of the process was put on hold until recently. 

“Not everyone did it exactly right, so it had to be checked again,” Martin said. “It felt good to work on it a couple of hours a day to make it complete.”