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How do you say "tyrannosaurus" in Lao?


When few people have read much, and there's little centralized publishing, people in different regions use the language differently. There is often disagreement about just what a word means, or what is good grammar, or how to best express an idea.

If you're working in a major language, where usage is relatively uniform and well-established, at least within your country, this page probably isn't relevant to you. If you face some of the same issues that we do, then our experiences may be of interest.

I had some previous database programming experience, and used that to set up a language database, to help us get a better handle on usage. Most people starting a literacy project won't have that experience. But some of this could be done on a spreadsheet, by someone with less computer skills. Or you could find a young person who seems to have good instincts for numbers and analytical thinking, and use this as a chance for him or her to learn some database programming.

First, we created a dictionary on the database, getting Lao words from whatever sources we could, and entering them with any available notes about usage, and an English synonym or definition, if available. If the same word (that is, the same sequence of letters) had two different, unrelated meanings, they got separate entries.

Then we added other fields:

Rhyme: The part of the word used to make a rhyme, that is,from the last vowel, onward. (In English, it starts at the vowel in the last stressed syllable.) Simply by sorting on this field, we were able to make a rhyming dictionary.

Part(s) of speech.

Alternate spellings, and notes about which spelling seems most prevalent. Lao is spelled phonetically, but a word pronounced with a short A in one region may be pronounced with a long A somewhere else. A word that used to be pronounced one way may have shifted.

Person or animal: This field gets checked for the name of an animal, a type of person, or any other conscious entity. This was useful in preparing books like Polar Bear Visits Laos, when we wanted rhyming words, and one of them needed to be the subject, or actor, in a sentence.

Dubious meanings: We put notes here if one source suggested an alternate meaning for a word but we couldn't confirm it anywhere else. If and when we find separate confirmation, we make a new entry.

Source: For uncommon words, it's often useful to record where they came from. In writing about other parts of the world, or subjects that didn't traditionally come up in Lao language, we've had to find Lao words or expressions for hundreds of words: nebula, Yucatan, warthog, tooth enamel, shorthand, Axis Powers, tyrannosaurus, Nigeria, quadrilateral, King Tut, emerald, and calcium, for starters. We try to determine if any term is already in use, but that's difficult. And if two sources have written about warthogs, they've undoubtedly used different terms. It's often helpful, much later, to know how we came up with what we did.

We have all of this set up in a database. It could be done in a spreadsheet as well, although in that form it would become a harder to use and to look up words. It would make a good project for someone learning database skills.

Later, I added another table to the database: Sentences showing actual usage. This has 3 key fields:

Lao Sentence: One or several consecutive Lao sentences, chosen because it has at least one word that's not very common. A maximum length of about 200 characters works well. Enough text should be selected to give some context.

English equivalent: If we have an English equivalent, we store it, as well.

Source: What book it came from. It may be helpful, either through this, or as a separate field, to record some information about who wrote this (in Lao, or whatever language you're recording), and where they're from, so that some usage patterns can emerge.

This has proven enormously valuable. We can search it for any word, or combination of words; we can search for English or Lao or any combination.

If we want to write about warthogs, we can quickly see what they've been called in the past, if that was in a bi-lingual book. If we only referred to them in Lao, and there's no English translation, it's harder, but we can look up past usage of any words we're considering. If we aren't sure whether the word for "hungry" is usually spelled with a long or a short vowel, we can easily count uses each way.

I think you'll need a true database, not a spreadsheet, to set up a fast, user-friendly interface for this. By now, if you've been helping a young person learn more basic database programming, perhaps they're ready for a new challenge such as this.