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  • Writer's pictureLucy Vinten

Jesuit Missionaries' Dictionaries and Vocabularies

On 15 April 1755, Dr Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language. In the previous 150 years over 20 English dictionaries had been published, but these had all had serious shortcomings of organisation or scope which limited their usefulness. Dr Johnson was commissioned to make his dictionary by a group of publishers who needed a definitive authority for English grammar, definition and spelling. There had been a huge expansion of books, newspapers and pamphlets in the 18th Century and the anarchic spelling which had been acceptable since Shakespeare’s time needed to be tamed. Dr Johnson spent 9 years on his great work, which until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 173 years later was the pre-eminent English dictionary.

Dr Johnson’s dictionary was made to meet a need of the time, and other dictionaries and phrasebooks have been made at various times to meet various needs. In the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century Jesuit missionaries sometimes needed to make their own dictionaries in order to enhance their missionary work. Lack of knowledge of local languages was a real barrier to their work, and some Jesuit missionaries set about both learning the languages and compiling grammars, phrase books and dictionaries.

We have several interesting examples of dictionaries, grammars, vocabularies and word-books compiled by Jesuit missionaries in the Archives.

Fr Augustus Law SJ died on 25 November 1880, while trying to establish a mission among the Zulu people of Southern Africa. He had spent 4 years at St Aiden's College, Grahamstown, learning the Zulu language in order to help him carry out missionary work. In 1879, he was chosen to be part of the first mission to the Zambezi, which travelled north over 1000 miles, with 5 Jesuit fathers, 3 Jesuit Brothers, and 4 wagons laden with supplies. Among the supplies were Fr Law’s notebooks and journals. In his notebooks he handwritten many useful things for his journey, including how to make ink, how to make bread and a cure for snakebites. He also copied into his book phrases of Zulu, and added useful words as he went.

Some of the phrases Fr Law wrote in his book were ones which he felt would be of use in his mission, for example 'Be of good heart’, which he translates into Zulu as ‘Yisna isibindi’, and ‘I have come to call sinners to repentance’, which he gives in Zulu as ‘Ngi ze ukuboza orome zi peuduke’, and ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’: 'Eganeni likaljise, nen Dodana, no Nioya ocwebileyo.' He also noted down the Our Father and the Ave Maria in Zulu, as well as the Zulu words for ‘Rosary Beads’, ‘Cross’, ‘Thanks be to God’ and ‘There is one God.’

Fr Law also noted phrases of a more practical nature, for example:

  • What do you call this in Zulu? - Lento igama layo into-ni na ukukuluma kwa kwa Zulu?

  • How deep is the river? - Umfula ukutjona kwawo rgakaname?

  • I am going to Umzila’s’ - Ngi ya u haniba kwa’Umzila

Or conversational such as:

  • Have you ever seen an elephant? - Indhlowa wa ke wa i bona na?

  • The moon is up - Inyanga yi pezulu

After Fr Law’s death, his notebook was continued by Fr de Wit SJ, who used it to write down -- in tiny writing -- hundreds of words and grammatical rules and idioms. Fr de Wit was Dutch, and occasionally translates Zulu into Dutch as well as English. Together, their notes on the Zulu language provide us with wonderful examples of a working vademecum so useful in the arduous day to day life of a Jesuit missionary.

More developed grammars, phrase books and dictionaries can be seen in the archives of Fr Cary-Elwes SJ.

Cuthbert Cary-Elwes was Fr Law’s nephew, and from an early age wanted to follow his uncle’s example and become a missionary amongst people ‘who knew nothing of Jesus Christ’. In 1904 he was sent to British Guyana, where he was stationed first at Georgetown and later at the Morawhanna mission. In November 1909 he was sent by Bishop Galton to open up a new mission in the interior. For the next 13 years he worked tirelessly to make his mission effective throughout the 300 square miles which it covered, chiefly working among the Makushi and Wapishana peoples, two Amerindian tribes of the Patamona people.

For the first year or so his instructions were of no real use owing to his lack of knowledge of the languages of the peoples. He had to rely on interpreters, who were not themselves always fluent in the languages, and were often of little use at all when it came to translating important prayers such as the Creed. However, Cary-Elwes started to take careful notes, constantly comparing and correcting them until in time he got together a mass of very useful material as groundwork for a grammar and dictionary of the Makushi and Wapishana languages. At the same time he became fluent in speaking the languages, especially Makushi, a very difficult language which he came to speak with the Makushi people with correctness and ease. There are accounts of him sitting long into the night, surrounded by men women and children, talking, singing and instructing them in an informal way.

Like Fr Law, Fr Cary-Elwes listed useful phrases such as ‘Can you make a boat?’ ‘Yes I can’ ‘No I can’t’ and ‘this is useful for making a boat’. He occasionally listed these by subject such as sickness or travelling. He also made translations of parts of the New Testament as well as the Our Father, Hail Mary, Creed and other prayers and parts of the litany into Wapishana, Makushi and other Amerindian languages including Waiwai and Taruma. Fr Cary-Elwes also made long vocabulary lists, often comparative. One of them, arranged alphabetically by the English word gives the equivalents in Wapishana, Taruma and Waiwai.

After Fr Cary-Elwes returned to England he spent his last few years before his death in 1945 rewriting his notes on the indigenous Guyanan dialects and compiling a comparative vocabulary of Makushi, Aroak and Carib. He also wrote hymns for the Wapishanas and a translation of the New Testament. However, these were unfinished at the time of his death and have not been published.

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