Problems in Swahili Lexicography

Albina R. Chuwa


Swahili dictionaries have been on the market since 1882. Most of these dictionaries were compiled by foreigners who were either missionaries or political administrators working in East Africa. Although the history of Swahili dictionary compilation seems to have survived a number of years, the field of lexicography is still a very new field in relation to what has been done by Tanzanians in this field. The first Swahili monolingual dictionary by a team of Tanzanian amateurs in dictionary compilation was published in 1981.

Due to inexperience in the field of lexicography the compilers have been facing various kinds of problems arising either from the technical level (whereby solutions for such problems are beyond the dictionary compilers) or from the practical level (whereby solutions depend more on the working team). When the two levels intertwine it makes the work of the dictionary compilers even more difficult, thus requiring support from outside the team. The sample problems discussed in this paper, though not exhaustive, pose some difficulties to Swahili dictionary compilers. Among those problems are:

1.    Fiscal constraints which force compilers to embrace a big user target, making the dictionary objectives too wide to address any group satisfactorily.

2.    The choice of language (standard versus non-standard varieties) inhibits the expansion of existing vocabulary in Swahili dictionaries.

3.    The identification of lemmas and their grammatical categories still requires special attention from Swahili grammarians and structuralists.



amateur, category, compiler, corpus, data bank, dialect, dictionary entry, frequency, grammar, grammatical category, headword, lemma, lexicography, meaning, objective, problem, selection (of entry), source, standard dictionary, synonym, target

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ISSN 2224-0039 (online); ISSN 1684-4904 (print)

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