University produces unique dictionary

In Africa, the writing of dictionaries is very rare and worse if it is a dictionary in any of the African languages. Memory Chirere, a correspondent of the Southern Times based at the University of Zimbabwe in Hararewhere he teaches English talks to Mr. Gift Mheta, the editor of this dictionary about the dictionary itself and related issues. M.C: I congratulate you, Gift Mheta, on this historic achievement. This dictionary is an ALLEX project in the University of Zimbabwe’s African Languages Research Institute (ALRI). Tell us briefly about ALRI, its mission and the projects it has accomplished so far. G.M: ALRI is an inter-disciplinary non-faculty unit dedicated to the research and development of African languages in Zimbabwe. Its mission is to research, document and develop Zimbabwean indigenous languages in order to promote and expand their use in all spheres of life. Its research agenda focuses mainly on corpus development and maintenance, computational lexicography and language technology applications. The institute was created in 2000 to mark the transformation of the African Languages Lexical Project (ALLEX Project) into a permanent research unit at the University of Zimbabwe. M.C: Duramanzwi reMimhanzi (Dictionary of Music) is the first dictionary of its type in the Shona language and maybe in an African language. Why produce a dictionary of music in Shona and not a dictionary of farming, science or culture or trees? I mean, what guided your choice? G.M: It is true that this dictionary is the first one of its kind in the Shona language and the reason why we opted for Music and not Science or any other area of speacialisation is that we wanted to preserve knowledge that has to do with our Shona culture. There are so many aspects of our culture that have disappeared because they have not been recorded. It is a known fact that everywhere in the world, music not only mirrors a people’s culture but also preserves it. Music is a reservoir of a people’s culture. And to preserve musical information is to preserve culture for future generations. We hope Duramazwi reMimhanzi will help preserve the Zimbabwean music culture and help lay bare other intricacies of the Shona culture. M.C: Music is a very broad subject in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa. There is Traditional music, contemporary music and music of the Youth etc. For this project, what did you consider as Zimbabwean Music and why? G.M: We considered all genres and styles of music that we find in Zimbabwe today hence we find headwords for both traditional and contemporary music in the Duramazwi reMimhanzi. The reason for this is the simple fact that culture is dynamic. We cannot restrict Zimbabwean Music to traditional types of music only because even such forms are a fusion of our experiences and of those we have come in contact with as a people. We do not see diversity as a problem but as a resource that has to be harnessed for the benefit of Zimbabweans. This is why you find headwords on traditional music such as ‘mbende’, ‘ngororombe’, ‘mbakumba’, ‘shangara’, ‘muchongoyo’ and headwords on modern music such as ‘robhoti’, ‘revhi’ and ‘rege’ in the same dictionary of musical terms. M.C: I see that there are words here like ‘Afrobeat’ which appear in your dictionary as ‘Afurobhiti’. Was it necessary to ‘Shonalise’ them like that? There is also ‘accapela which appears here as ‘akapera.’ What guided such decisions? Could you not have left such ‘non-Shona words like that or adopt them in their original European spelling? G.M: Adopting and adaptation of foreign words is not peculiar to the Shona language. Every language that comes into contact with another or other languages naturally borrows from the language or languages that it comes into contact with. This is a natural process that takes place among Shona speakers. The Shona speakers do not require a linguist to tell them that when they borrow a word that has a lateral /l/ as is the case with ‘acapella’ they have to change it to a trill /r/ that we use in the Shona language. When cellphones for instance were introduced in this country you would hear people saying ‘serufoni’ without a linguist instructing them to say so. This is why you find words like ‘akapera’ in Duramazwi reMimhanzi. In addition, the Shona writing system does not allow the use of /l/. We will continue to adhere to the writing rules until there are official changes which will allow the incorporation of words with letters or letter combinations which are not acceptable in the current writing system. M.C: Although your research in some cases appears to have been extremely thorough, there are some very few areas that I think needed more work. For instance your definition of Sungura does not pursue and include the word’s East African origins. I gather that Sungura means ‘hare’ in Swahili. When early rumba turntables (records) got here from East Africa, the picture of a hare was on most of them and therefore Shona people called this music Sungura. What do you think about the need to follow up on more detail for some of the words here? G.M: We could not exhaust all information on all the musical terms in the dictionary because in any dictionary there is always the issue of space constraints. We could not be as exhaustive as we would have wanted because our plan was to publish a small volume and then a much bigger volume later. However, there is obviously a need to follow up on more detail. If you read on page x of this dictionary we are welcoming additional information that you find missing in this work. Plans are actually afoot to compile an advanced Shona musical terms dictionary. In this volume here, we intend to incorporate all the suggestions that our targeted readers are going to forward to us. We welcome all forms of constructive criticism. M.C: Interesting.Who is supposed to use this dictionary? G.M: Because this dictionary touches on important facets of our culture, we look forward to seeing it being used in schools, colleges and universities. We also hope that it will be used by anyone who has some interest in Music and Culture. M.C: As the Chief Editor of this project, Mheta, what were the most outstanding challenges in coming up with this kind of dictionary? G.M: One of the problems was how to collect terms for such a specialized dictionary when there were no other Shona musical terms dictionaries. The editorial team resolved this problem by working with music lecturers, teachers, students and performers throughout the country. This was a costly exercise as it involving traveling throughout the whole country. The most serious challenge was defining of the musical terms. As one scholar pointed out, the worst criminals should not be condemned to prisons but to dictionary making for the tortures are experienced especially in defining. Even terms that appear to be very simple gave us problems when it came to defining. Teamwork was the answer to this. I worked closely with my sub-editors Bridget Chinouriri and William Zivenge. M.C: Doing a dictionary is ‘cultural work.’ In your view, what impact will this dictionary have culturally, intellectually and musically? G.M: We hope that this dictionary will make a great impact culturally as it touches on both traditional and contemporary aspects of culture that are related to Music. A traditional dance like ‘mhande’ for instance is defined in terms of how it is danced. Those with interest in performing the dance can actually try to do so using information in the dictionary. It also provides information on when and why this dance is performed. Such information has been passed from one generation to the other through the word of mouth but now with the publication of Duramazwi reMimhanzi there is now a reference work that can be used by music students and scholars. M.C: Not many people or institutions are into dictionary making in Africa. Those like you who are in it tend to get financial aid from non-African organisations, how do you react to this? G.M: It’s true that there are very few institutions in Africa who are into dictionary making. This is mainly because lexicographic work is taxing and costly. The job requires a lot of funds to do field work, procure modern computers for processing of information, training of lexicographic skills and publication of research findings. Such high costs have generally scared most African governments that seem not to see the urgent need for dictionaries in indigenous languages. The importance of dictionary making as a way of promoting our African languages so that they become effective tools for communication cannot be over emphasized. Issues of African languages have generally been neglected by most African governments thereby leaving the door open to foreign donors such as Norwegian Universities Committee for Development Research and Education (NUFU) who have generously funded our dictionary projects for the past fifteen years. In a sense, that is unfortunate. Since Kwame Nkrumah, we have talked about ‘our people,’ ‘our culture’, ‘our languages’ etc but we do not seem to want to put our money where our mouths are. It can be tragic. M.C: Thank you and good luck, Sir.

June 2006
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