Keys of the Kingdom
Supporting Bible translation as language technical consultant, and editor
February 2018

Lama Dictionary

Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first dictionary in English (1755), said, “Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few!”

I have always been amused by this quote, as it is so true. Writing a dictionary properly, correctly, and completely can turn into an almost impossible lifetime project. Working together with Lama men over many years—with a hiatus since 1993—Neal and I have collected, defined, and created sentence examples for over 7,000 words in the Lama language.

The Lama dictionary, including French and English translations, is already online, even as we continue to refine and correct it. So we are working in three languages at once. Every entry for a noun includes the singular, plural, its class (which tells which pronouns, etc., agree with it), its tone (there are four possibilities on almost every syllable of all words), the semantic/meaning domain (for example, plants, animals, humans, etc.), three dialects to consider, and reversal words that will allow a French or English speaker to find a Lama word. Some Lama nouns have simply been transliterated from French, the official language of Togo, or English. We need to decide which ones should be included, as hundreds could possibly be adopted and pronounced with a Lama “accent.” Some transliterated English examples are: lɔkǝ (lock), coci (church), and hama (hammer).

Verb entries need many of the same details as nouns, as well as language-specific uses of the nominalized form, adverbial, gerundive, and actor (for example, for eat: eats, eating, eater, etc.). Some verbs are irregular, so we need to show their present tense. Verbs can also have transitive and intransitive meanings, as well as many idiomatic meanings. Pronouns and adjectives in Lama have multiple forms that need to be listed. And ideophones, which work like adverbs, also need details. Words like “boom!” or “crunch, crunch” or “squish, squish” in English, which define sounds, are similar to ideophones. So far we have 850 of them; here are some:

Lack of space prevents us from sharing more thorny questions we confront.

In addition to these challenges, the alphabet itself, which demands special characters foreign to English and French, requires lots of copying and pasting “odd” letters as we type. Here are the possible characters we use in the dictionary, most with tone marks atop them:

Many entries need to be cross-referenced with other related words. For entries that are from a variant dialect, the details are abbreviated, and the reader is directed to the main dialect entry.

As the team continues translating the Old Testament and Neal reads each book through, he watches for new words to add to the dictionary. But we have to be very careful that the use of a word is also a common, known expression for the man on the street. We do not and cannot include expressions directly from the Scriptures, as it is technically translated material.

Coming to the point where we say “enough is enough” is unthinkable, really. And yet in a book about how to produce a bilingual dictionary, one compiler working in an indigenous language in Mexico, when considering adding another level of depth for every entry/word for five dialects, pronounced the obstacle “insurmountable.” That word has helped us make decisions as we consider what degree of detail we will demand of ourselves and the team.

Why dedicate time to a dictionary? What does it have to do with Bible translation? Mining a language over years to produce the Bible has brought up riches that rightfully belong to the Lama people and to the country of Togo. It is only right that we make this information available to them and not keep it to ourselves for whatever reason. Completing a dictionary is often the last (albeit ongoing over the years) task involved for a project. In addition to this, having a dictionary accessible in one’s language is understandably a point of pride for its language speakers. The Lama team is thrilled to see their mother tongue in a dictionary online and being expanded. Speaking of the team, there is no way we could continue to work on the dictionary long-distance without the very capable assistance of Gaston Nfa and the other translation team members!

Working with words in this way is fascinating, but much of it is also tedious and repetitive with so many entries to consider, including thousands of subentries. Thankfully, sometimes Neal can write a consistent-change table, which can speed up the work! So we do ask for your prayers that within the next year or so we can finish the bulk of the editing needed. Go to the Webonary site and have some fun looking up words and expressions in Lama:

“Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, writer (1804–1864)

Our grateful thanks to all for your prayers, correspondence, and gifts, which enable us to support Bible translation.

We appreciate you and love you,

Carol and Neal Brinneman

Carol’s ezine:

If you desire to contribute to our ministry, go to or send a check to Wycliffe Bible Translators, PO Box 628200, Orlando FL 32862-8200, and enclose a separate note stating, “Preference for the Wycliffe ministry of Neal and Carol Brinneman.” Thank you.