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Department of Linguistics



Volume 18 No 2    December 2011

Doing things with words: one community’s initial response to a dictionary project

Deborah Hill, of the University of Canberra, reports on a dictionary project in the Solomon Islands. This is a version of her paper, presented at the Australex 2011 conference.

Self-esteem and survival

In discussing the value and usefulness of dictionaries for small communities whose members have low literacy levels, the emphasis can naturally fall on the final product – the completed dictionary and its use by speakers of the language. However, the process of planning and writing a dictionary may also have the potential to help a community manage social change and improve its economic position by combining lexicography with the revitalization of traditional crafts.

In the case of the Longgu community (Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands) it is the process itself that is important to the community and is contributing not to prestige, but to self-esteem, a factor essential in the survival of small languages (Ostler 2003) and one that, for political and economic reasons, has been missing in the community for some time. Beginning a dictionary based on an existing 2000 word word-list is one way in which the community felt it could ‘do’ something: they have been able to make decisions about the content, the method of working, and ultimately the purpose of the dictionary.

The loss of the local

Like other Melanesian communities, the Longgu community has become concerned about language shift and changes in cultural practices in the recent past. Longgu is faced with significant pressures as a result of its demographic profile. A growing population and the presence of a youth bulge in the Solomon Islands  (the mean age in 2007 was 19.6 years), has led to greater urbanization. Population growth has created pressures on land. This has resulted in many young men leaving the villages to stay in town. Increasing intermarriage between people from different language groups, greater movement of people between Honiara and the village, and education in English has led to an increase in the use of Pijin in the villages in the past 20 years.

However, the introduction of a new Solomon Islands’ National Languages policy (2010) – not yet implemented – has provided an incentive to take action. The new languages policy will mean that local languages will soon be used as the medium of instruction in the first years of school. School readers, curriculum materials and dictionaries will all be needed as part of the implementation of the policy. For the Longgu people, this change in government policy fits in well with their desire to maintain their language and culture and provide more opportunities for young people to stay in the villages rather than to move to Honiara.

Revitalizing traditional crafts

Longgu people have decided to develop three thematic dictionaries – two of which will be linked to the revitalization of traditional crafts (i.e. weaving and carving). The third dictionary is based on fishing – a domain that incorporates traditional skills and traditional knowledge. Revitalizing these crafts and skills will provide training and work for people; the products can be sold to earn income; and the dictionaries will be used in schools as the new national languages policy (Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, 2010), is implemented over the next few years.

Old photographs of a variety of daily objects and events, including woven baskets and the process of carving, provided the impetus for the community to consider linking the revitalization of crafts with lexicography. The photographs taken by the anthropologist Ian Hogbin, who spent 4 months in the Longgu area in 1933, provided a concrete reminder of how life had been, what had been lost and what had stayed the same in the past 70 or more years (Hogbin 1964). An excellent photographer, Hogbin’s photographs are in collections at the Fisher Archives, Sydney University, Sydney University’s Macleay Museum, and at the Australian Museum, Sydney. As part of a project linking the community with his collection, some of these photographs were shown and discussed in Nangali village, the most traditional village of the Longgu area, in 2011.

Involving the community

The community’s decision to link the revitalization of skills to a dictionary project moved the project firmly into the community’s hands and allowed them to see a future that includes maintenance of language and culture, as well as a chance at greater economic prosperity.  Harbart (2011) has argued, that the connections between economics and language maintainance has ‘tended to be overlooked or underemphasized both by those who work toward preserving endangered languages and those concerned with alleviating poverty or developing economies.’ (2011:413) This projects highlights the significance of economics in the community’s decision-making.

Discussions about how, and whether, to undertake the project followed traditional practices: chiefs of each tribe, together with other village elders, first discussed their ideas with one another, and then with the linguist. At a later stage, younger people were included and listened to. Following traditional decision-making procedures was an important step in ensuring that the project had full community support. While there is no certainty about the success of the community’s plans to revitalize crafts, the energy and optimism evident in the initial stages of the project reflects the general point that dictionaries can play a role in increasing the self-esteem of a language community. Within the context of a new languages policy, it should also play a concrete role in language, and cultural, maintenance.


Harbart, Wayne, 2011. Endangered languages and economic development, in Peter K. Austin and Julia Sallabank (eds)The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 403-422.

Hogbin, Ian, 1964. A Guadalcanal Society: the Kaoka Speakers, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, 2010. Policy Statement and Guidelines for the Use of Vernacular Languages and English in Education in Solomon Islands, Honiara, Solomon Islands.

Ostler, Nicholas, 2003. Desperate straits for languages: how to survive, Peter K. Austin (ed.) Language Documentation and Description, Vol. 1, London: HRELP.
Solomon Islands 2007. Solomon Islands Population Characteristics. Demographic and Helath Survey. Solomon Islands Government




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