x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Two million Emirati words collected so far for 'dialect dictionary'

UAE University is gathering a database of specifically Emirati Arabic words.

AL AIN // A dictionary-like text database of Emirati Arabic is slowly developing as part of a project to offer greater exposure to the language.

Launched two years ago by UAE University, the Dh380,000 scheme has so far gathered two million Emirati words.

"The objective is to build a big database of spoken Emirati Arabic," said Dr Girma Halefom, a professor of linguistics at the university. "There is a need for this because there is no such data here, so we have to build it.

"Once built, there is no limit for its uses - we can write text, textbooks, language-teaching textbooks and you can do deeper research into understanding the language."

The focus is placed on the spoken dialect. Research assistants record and transcribe by listening to speech patterns and writing words using a phonetic alphabet.

"All you need is a very good ear to listen to the sounds to transcribe them into a symbol," Dr Halefom said. "Once transcribed into symbols, you translate it into English and we also include the grammatical category it falls under - whether it is an adjective, a noun or a verb."

The sources are Emirati residents.

"We don't want them to have travelled a lot so we prefer those who stayed here longer," he said. "It basically could be any range of age.

"We tell our students to ask their grandmothers and grandfathers to tell them stories, for instance, about how weddings used to be and just ask them questions for them to talk. What we need is more words."

Dr Halefom's target is to get a Dh250,000 grant to collect another million words in the next academic year.

"Then, the whole objective of this work is to put it into a database where it can be searched," he said. "We'll also need more funding because we need a couple of programmers, too."

Eventually, the database will serve as an online dictionary.

"People can take any kind of information from it," Dr Halefom said. His hope is for everyone to be able to use the database so the language can get more exposure.

"We want everyone to understand the language more and more and produce papers using it," Dr Halefom said. "For any linguistic research, these are the basics if you want to write the grammar of the language, this is what you need.

"You want to see what the contexts of each word are, each categories are. It immediately gives it to you and you can pull it out from the database after searching for it."

Arabic can prove to be a tricky language compared with some others, he said.

"For example, we can find out which adjectives appear before a noun. In Arabic, it appears on both sides of the noun."

Eventually, the database will be made available on the university's website.

"This means we're allowing the entire world to use this data to do research," he said.

"We want them to do that because this means more work will be done in Emirati Arabic. It will be more explored and even translators and researchers can use it."

The older generation of Emiratis is thrilled that the dialects are re-emerging.

"All my grandchildren do is speak in English, they barely know any Emirati words," said Mansour Al Kaabi, a 65-year-old Emirati in Abu Dhabi. "Our language is precious and it is time everyone started learning more about it."

The next step will be to categorise the words according to emirate by listening to the dialects of speakers.

"Three million words compared to other languages is nothing," Dr Halefom said. " But we will keep adding words because the more the better".

cmalek@thenational.ae