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Oxford University Press Launches Free Online Swahili Dictionary

  • Rael Ombuor

A screenshot of the first online Swahili dictionary launched by Oxford University Press as part of a new digital global languages program, with a mission to extend learning and education worldwide, Dec. 7, 2016.

In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries launched a new digital global languages program, with a mission to extend learning and education worldwide. The company launched its first online Swahili dictionary by the Oxford University Press.

The objective of the Oxford Global Languages Initiative is to transform the experience of people worldwide by making content in different languages available in a digital platform, on websites, in apps, and in many different tools and services.

In a video message delivered Wednesday at the launch of its online Swahili dictionary, Oxford Dictionaries director Judy Pearsall said one reason for putting together the Swahili versions is to help connect cultures across Africa.

“Swahili is an extremely important language across large parts of southeastern and eastern parts of Africa and spoken by millions of people...both as a mother tongue, but also as a second language, and very much a lingua franca across large parts of the country," Pearsall said. "So it is bridging the smaller languages and connecting cultures.”

For the first time, large quantities of quality lexical information from Swahili have been systematically created, collected, and made available in a single linked repository, to speakers, learners, and developers.

Swahili is the fourth African language to be added to the Oxford program, after Zulu, Northern Sotho, and Setswana.

The online dictionary has advantages over the printed Swahili dictionary said Oxford University Press in Kenya General Manager John Mwazemba.

"One of the things we grapple with, with printed books and the printed version of the dictionary, is that you need a few years to get a new edition, but an online dictionary gives us a unique opportunity of updating new words that come after they have been vetted," he said.

"So we have user generated content, so if a user thinks there is a word that needs to be there, a Swahili word that is being used widely by people and it is not there, then it can move from being user generated to the platform after it has been vetted. So it is a quick turnaround. We do not need to prepare for one year to include a word," Mwazemba added.

Digital communication across the globe is dominated by English and other global languages such as Chinese and Spanish.

For Swahili speakers, the new initiative is a step toward developing the language for use across Africa.

The Swahili site may be found at http://sw.oxforddictionaries.com/

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