UChicago scholars expand digital dictionaries of South Asia, Middle East

For decades, scholars at the University of Chicago have sought to preserve and share the languages of South Asia and the Middle East—from Assamese to Torwali, Khowar to Pashto.

In this work, the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia are invaluable: In addition to definitions and pronunciations, users can learn about the original source of words in languages spoken by nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

Prof. Gary A. Tubb and James Nye, a former UChicago Library bibliographer, are now spearheading a major expansion of these digital dictionaries—a three-year project that will help scholars, diplomats, journalists, businesspeople and countless others.

“The extent to which people are using digital dictionaries for South Asian and Middle Eastern languages is expanding rapidly, and technical advances have made using online dictionaries easier and more powerful,” said Tubb, the Anupama and Guru Ramakrishnan Professor, and chair in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations (SALC). “Now with a few flicks of their fingers, users can do research that used to take all afternoon.”

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the project will extend language coverage by the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia—launched in 1999—and enhance the online resources for South Asia and the Middle East for deeper exploration and wider dissemination of dictionary and pronunciation content. Additional languages covered include Kashmiri, Panjabi, Persian, Sindhi, Sinhala, Telugu and Urdu.

The expansion will be crucial to researchers in UChicago’s Division of the Humanities, as well as scholars everywhere. The need for such digital resources is especially acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people no longer have easy access to physical libraries, places of study or offices.

The Digital Dictionaries of South Asia currently draws more than seven million searches every year across its 52 dictionaries. “Our international audience of users are voting with their fingers,” said Nye, the project director for the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia and former bibliographer for South Asia for more than three decades.

The complex technology needed to make searching easy is handled by programmers such as Charles Cooney, AM’97, PhD’04. Another essential member of the team, Cooney is also involved in the UChicago’s ARTFL Project for French language dictionaries.

“The technical enhancements to these dictionaries will represent a quantum leap forward in these languages,” said Assoc. Prof. Whitney Cox, a SALC faculty member who uses three or four of these digital dictionaries daily.

Another everyday user of South Asian dictionaries is UChicago alum Frances Pritchett, PhD’81. A professor emerita at Columbia University, she consults them for her literary studies and translations of Ghalib, the 18th-century poet who wrote in both Urdu and Persian.

“If my home were on fire, the first things I would grab are my Platts dictionary [for Urdu] and my laptop with access to the online version,” Pritchett said.

Cox credits the development of these resources in large part to Nye, whom he described as “the most important figure in my field, ever.” An associate of SALC, Nye has been involved in the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia since it began in 1999 and has assisted in obtaining more than $2.25 million in external funding from government entities, private institutions and individual donors. The three-year expansion is being supported by $198,724 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Nye has also successfully negotiated with multiple publishers—convincing them to waive fees by demonstrating that the sales of print dictionaries increase significantly when their contents are published online.

“Jim is the real brains behind this project,” said Tubb, the principal investigator of the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia. To help improve this resource, Tubb and Nye are forming an advisory group that includes scholars and experts from the University of Wisconsin at Madison; the University of Maryland; the National Security Agency; and the Monterey Language Institute, which teaches international languages to members of the U.S. military. An even larger but separate group of South Asian and Middle Eastern researchers, which includes Cox and Pritchett, will test the online dictionaries.

“Once the pandemic is out of the way, no one believes we will go back completely to teaching only in classrooms,” Tubb said. “Zoom and online resources are here to stay. As we are reaching more international students through remote teaching, digital access to these dictionaries and audio pronunciations opens up new possibilities and comparisons among words and meanings. No one will go back to the old resources alone.”