Dictionary & Lexicography Services

Dictionary and Lexicography Services supports those working in minority languages in a variety of ways. Words are the building blocks of a dictionary and are the most basic resource for Bible translation. So, we help workers apply a strategy for collecting words. And when they translate Scripture, we help them understand how to use the information in their dictionary.

We support language workers in the use of FieldWorks Language Explorer (FLEx), the preferred computer program for managing dictionary data. For data in some other format, our team of specialists converts that data to FLEx format. An online course we are developing will teach principles of lexicography and provide practical instruction for applying them.

Dictionary and Lexicography Services also manages Webonary.org, a website where dictionaries can be published in electronic and searchable format. We work with software developers to make uploading data to this site as simple as possible. We fine-tune the site where the data is displayed, ensuring that the content looks appealing and that no vital information has been left out.

Our staff work all over the world, so we use email, Skype and Zoom to work together. We connect through weekly team meetings, one-on-one meetings and annual staff retreats. At academic conferences, we promote Webonary.org and our service of lexical data conversion.

Do you have a passion for the linguistically underprivileged? Do you want to play a part in increasing the forms and contexts that use a minority language? Then we want you. We are looking for individuals who enjoy being part of a team yet can work independently. To get involved in data conversion, you must have analytical skills. For dictionary website maintenance, attention to detail and a tolerance for tedium go a long way to ensure success.

How Words Change Lives

When asked how his work changes lives, Kevin Warfel in Dictionary and Lexicography Services has no trouble answering.

“You can see the self-esteem of the people rising as they realize their language is just as valid as any of their neighbors’ languages,” he said. “To be a part of something that boosts people’s self-image like that and prepares them to see themselves as God sees them is tremendous.”

This change happens during Rapid Word Collection (RWC) workshops. Formerly, linguistic workers gathered words by bits and pieces and put them into databases. There was no systematic way to collect words for dictionaries, and it could take 20 years to gather 5,000 words. But with the Rapid Word Collection method, workers can collect 10,000 in only two weeks.

So at the start of a workshop, Warfel asks the mother-tongue speakers how many words they think their language has. They’ll often say 500, or maybe 1000. When Warfel tells them the goal is to collect at least 10,000, they don’t believe him. But two or three days into the workshop, they’ve already collected more than they thought existed and are well on their way to the goal of 10,000.

“By the time we get to the end and we’ve hit 12,000, 13,000, 14,000 words, they’re just amazed. They’re thrilled,” Warfel said. “Word has gotten out to the community.” That’s when the local speakers realize their language is just as valuable as other languages that already have a dictionary or a Bible translation.

“They feel so much better about who they are as a people because now they see that their language is not baby babble. It’s got structure. They’ve got words.”

Warfel joined Wycliffe Bible Translators right after graduating college. He had seen a movie Wycliffe produced about Marilyn Laszlo, and he knew Bible translation was the work God had designed him to do. He called himself a thinker more than a relater, so the linguistic analysis component of Bible translation appealed to him.

First, Warfel and his wife spent 19 years in Burkina Faso. They helped create an alphabet for a language and began figuring out the structure and grammar. They worked with people to teach reading and writing. They helped start Scripture translation and passed the project on to a native speaker trained in theology and translation principles.

Then Warfel served as a language technology consultant. He helped people figure out how to get different characters that weren’t on their keyboards to show up on the screen. He assisted people with software programs like Paratext and FieldWorks Language Explorer (FLEx).

In 2008, only nine months before moving to North Carolina, Warfel attended a technical conference.

There, one five-minute presentation changed the direction of his life. Ron Moe presented on a new dictionary development process, one that collapsed 20 years of effort into a two-week blitz. That blitz would later become known as Rapid Word Collection.

“That just blew my mind,” Warfel said. “I got really excited about that and wanted to see this process implemented in languages around the world.”

Because Rapid Word Collection works by collecting words according to their semantic domain—the topic of life they refer to—Warfel realized this method could be used to do more than just compile dictionaries. It could help with Bible translations, too.

“I mean, how many times does a writer sit there and think, ‘Now, what’s the exact right word?’” Warfel asked. “You have resources like dictionaries and a thesaurus. Well, that’s what RWC creates for a Bible translator.”

A Bible translator, even a mother-tongue speaker, may have trouble thinking of just the right word for a biblical concept. But with a lexical database created through a Rapid Word Collection workshop, he can simply look up all the synonyms related to the word he’s thinking of to find the right one.

“That saves him a whole lot of time and energy and allows him to pour his time and energy into things that require human interaction,” Warfel said. “So I was really excited about that. Maybe you could tell.”

In the United States, he made plans to return to Burkina Faso to run a Rapid Word Collection workshop.

The Right Niche

Then in 2012, SIL International created Dictionary and Lexicography Services (DLS). Warfel became the Associate Coordinator, the person who promotes Rapid Word Collection, runs workshops, trains others to do workshops and develops materials.

By now, Warfel has trained many people around the world in Rapid Word Collection workshops, and they’re able to handle the questions that come up in their part of the world. He doesn’t get as many calls for help as he used to, though he is consulting with a group in Canada that wants to begin word collections in First Nations languages.

He also helps people with FLEx. He may answer questions that come up on the FLEx forum, or he might correspond directly with individuals to help them with their database. He helps people figure out how to best encode data so they can print their dictionary or how to make sure dictionary entries are correctly related.

Warfel spends a large part of his time working on projects with the DLS Coordinator, Verna Stutzman. Currently, these projects include creating an online lexicography training course and writing a chapter for a lexicography handbook. The course will train people in principles of lexicography—what lexicography is, what the best practices and tools are and how to develop a dictionary. The chapter they’re writing for the handbook is about creating dictionaries for minority languages.

His wife, Anita, also serves in Dictionary and Lexicography Services. She works with the editors and compilers of dictionaries to create the front and back matter for dictionaries published online at Webonary.org. This includes the introduction to the language, grammar tables and phonology explanations and can often mean translating from English to French or from French to English.

Other people on the Dictionary and Lexicography Services team convert data from other formats into FLEx so the dictionaries can be published on Webonary.org.

Dictionary and Lexicography Services uses a wide variety of skills, and Warfel sees how Rapid Word Collection and dictionary creation impact people. He knows he’s doing what he was created to do.

“That was my niche I was designed for,” he said. “If God calls me home, I feel like I’ve done what I was called to do. I don’t have any regrets. I feel very satisfied in the sense that I fulfilled his call.”