Figuring out how to tackle this project proved an interesting series of events. When making a general, practical dictionary for people to learn important words, the first question was, “What words does one choose?” The obvious answer seemed to be, “The words that are of the highest frequency in the corpus.” These would be the words that a student would come across the most, and therefore be of most immediate use.
So a few years back I collated the Concordance listings on the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon for all of the texts listed in the Palestinian Aramaic corpus.
The Concordance mode merely scans over the requested lemma file (the way that the CAL internally represents documents with lexical tagging), tallies up each instance of the word, and then sorts them in alphabetical order. If one simply collates each of these generated concordances (some 30 or so documents for JPA) and sorts them by frequency, you’re left with a list of nearly 9,400 words for the corpus in order of “popularity.” (I’ll probably post the full frequency list on the dictionary website later.)
Thousands of words are great for print dictionaries, but for a visual dictionary, it was a bit much. The distribution was also extremely skew (as it is for virtually all languages) with many words up front having huge attestation, trailing off into a very long tail of rarely used words, finally ending with a long line of singletons.
≥100 and <1000
≥10 and <100
N = 9379
As such, the list needed to be pruned back a bit. I decided to adopt the following two criteria:
The first set of words must be nouns. (This is a visual dictionary, and nouns are easier to illustrate. All verbs, adverbs, prepositions, etc. were tossed from the list.)
An individual word needs to appear at least 5 times in the corpus. (This cut off the aforementioned long tail of some 5784 sparsely attested words.)
Between those two criteria, it brought the list from many thousands of words, down to a “mere” 1,700. This was still a bit much for the initial dictionary in the amount of time I have to complete it.
Additionally, among those ~1,700 words, a large number of them were still tricky to illustrate because they were:
Abstract (like “knowledge” or “name” or “obligation”), or
Religious jargon (like “Mishnah” or “Torah” etc.), or
Otherwise better suited to a separate unit or set in context with its other members (numbers, family, etc.)
A single image slide could not provide sufficient context for these words, so pulling them all out, I was left with a list of about 600 “easily illustratable” words.
This is doable!
The Next Steps:
My next step from here is going to be formatting this list in a readable form for the project’s website. When I start implementing the dataset, this will serve as the “checklist” towards completion and also aid with any crowd sourcing efforts.
Each word needs to have its gloss and orthography checked against the Galilean corpus (sometimes lemma forms diverge, since most lemmas are based off of Eastern Aramaic forms – I’ll put together a list of links), and be broken down into syllable and letter chunks:
Each word also needs to have its audio recorded.
Once the list is posted, I’ll be sending out a request for help finding images. The images need to be public domain, or otherwise have their copyright released in such a way that they can be used for educational purposes. When this project is done, I’m going to make the source code available for other educators so that they can build their own datasets for different languages, and I want the images to be part of that.
The Test Set
While the full list percolates, I’ll need to compile a small subset of the list – perhaps just a few dozen words – to be the test set. This is what I will use to check to see how the audio will work and to later use as a “dummy” set to implement the interface.
The Audio Chunks
This is going to be, perhaps, the most difficult part.
I’ll need to compile a list of all possible single letter-vowel and syllable combinations and record audio for each one, and then develop some schema to store them so that the software can make use of them.
Luckily, due to the restricted vowel inventory of Galilean, this is a much more attainable task than if it were another dialect. For letter-vowel pairs, it’s roughly 120 combinations (and since that’s doable, that’s where I’ll start). With full syllables, however, I may be looking at 2,500 possible combinations total. Ugh… First things first, though.
Finally, with the test set in hand, I’ll start working on the actual code driving the visual interface based off of the initial mockups. This, I anticipate, is going to be one of the easier and fun bits to get done, but when I do sit down to it I’m going to post another update about the design process.
This is where everyone else comes in. Once I have a prototype up and running, I need you – yes YOU, reader on the Internet – to help me test it, break it, and reform it stronger. With every successive wave of testing, it will become a better tool.
So, I was alluding to a Faculty Research Grant over here at RVCC that I applied for back in February, and before the summer I got the good news that I was approved! 🙂
What is it for? A Digital, Interactive, and Topical Galilean Aramaic Dictionary project that I will be constructing over the course of the summer. This post is serving to motivate me to get it done.
Here’s an excerpt from the proposal that was accepted:
Faculty Research Grant Proposal: Digital, Interactive, & Topical Galilean Aramaic Dictionary Steve Caruso, MLIS – Computer Science Department
Aramaic is a family of languages that is part of the Northwest Semitic group with a written history that stretches back over 3,000 years and is related to Akkadian, Ugaritic, Amharic, Hebrew, and Arabic. Among other things, it has served as the language of the ancient Aramean kings, the official language of the western half of Darius I’s empire, one of the languages that helped spread Buddhism under Ashoka, and has strong influences upon both the writing system and vocabulary of Classical Arabic.
Galilean Aramaic, a Western Aramaic language, is of special importance within both Judaism where it was the language of the Jerusalem Talmud (and a large body of other of Rabbinic works) and within Christianity as it was the everyday language of Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers. Despite that, Galilean has proven to be one of the more obscure and misunderstood dialects due to systemic – albeit well-intentioned – corruption to its corpus over the centuries, involving the layering of Eastern scribal “corrections” away from genuine Western dialect features. To this day there is no easily accessible grammar or fully articulated syntax, and due to the academic predisposition towards viewing Aramaic languages through an Eastern Aramaic lens, assessing vocabulary with appropriate orthographical and dialectical considerations has proven difficult.
It is that last problem that my proposal for a Faculty Research Grant seeks to remediate. Over the course of the last 10 years or so, I have been compiling a topical lexical reference of the Galilean dialect comprising all words that appear in the corpus over five times with the intention of building a web-based, interactive dictionary. It will serve as both a learning tool as well as a reference work for both academics and laymen grappling with the dialect.
The system that I use seeks to address difficulties that have been handled poorly in other works, including a more appropriate vocalization system (the early 5-vowel “Palestinian” vocalization system from antiquity, rather than the more expansive Tiberian or Babylonian systems which do not match Galilean phonology), and more genuinely Galilean/Western Aramaic orthography.
 One reliable grammar by Michael Sokoloff is in Hebrew and uses a standardized orthography, where the other reliable grammar by Steven Fassberg is not for the faint of heart (it is far too technically-oriented for laymen and –arguably – even some experts). All other grammars published to date (Dalman, Stevenson, Levias, etc.) are based upon a corrupt or inconsistent corpus.
 For a fuller handling of the problems facing the Galilean dialect, see E.Y. Kutcher’s “Studies in Galilean Aramaic” (Bar-Illan University, 1976).
So you can see why I’m a bit excited.
I’ve already set up some webspace at RVCC for it, which you can find here:
A 1,500-year-old marble slab found on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee Wednesday provides the first real proof of ancient Jewish settlement in the area, archaeologists say. The large slab, which bears an Aramaic inscription in Hebrew script, was dug up on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee on Wednesday as part of an ongoing excavation in the ancient town of Kursi.
Experts say the slab probably dates to around 500 C.E., when the Hebrew alphabet was used by Jews and some local Christian communities. This suggest that Kursi was either a Jewish community or a mixed Christian-Jewish settlement. Researchers could only discern two words: “Amen” and “Marmaria,” the latter possibly referring to Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Take the sensational claims with a grain of salt. There needs to be a much more thorough study of this inscription before jumping to conclusions. The rest of the article can be found here:
Update: From what I can see, it truly is in Galilean Aramaic. The orthography is what I’d expect to see (the plene spelling in words like סייע [“helps”] and use of ה for final a vowels like what looks like אתרה [“the synagogue” or “the place”] and יקרה ד [“the honor of”]). Unfortunately, it’s so cracked and crumbling it’s hard to make out full sentences. I’m really looking forward to seeing some better pictures. 🙂