This dictionary of Northern Maa was created over about ten years of intermittent visits to the Samburu Lowlands. There are roughly 260,000 speakers of this version of Maa. The language is not one of the world’s languages for which there are dictionaries and books and a written literary tradition. There are linguists who work on recording Maa, but they do so using their own specialized alphabet and phonetic rules. A variety of Christian sects from the United States and Europe have bible translation projects that require that Maa be written down. There is no single accepted system. Friends showed me a bible they had recently acquired. I was able to read it aloud while, interestingly — and this was interesting to them as well as to me — they were not. Both friends are University educated, read and write English fluently. Clearly, something is wrong with that bible’s spelling. Native speakers stumble over it because it doesn’t accurately represent their language, while I can at least push through to at least make sound they understand. Literate Samburu have opinions about how words should be spelled, but they don’t agree. In seventeenth-century British texts, it is not uncommon to find the same word spelled differently in different instances. And different authors spelled words different from each other, as English spelling had not been standardized. Johnson’s dictionary in Britain and Noah Webster’s dictionary in America some years later went a long way to standardize English spelling. Noah Webster, in a quest to both simplify spelling, make it more logical, and to differentiate American English from the British version, made numerous, though functionally minor changes to a few words, like standardize. Webster thought that the “z” sound ought to be represented by a “z,” while the British continue on happily pronouncing a “z” for the “s” in their standardise. For the orthography in this dictionary, we have gone with the consensus amongst our friends. We have also recorded several native speakers saying the words, which we have posted on the internet so linguists and lexicographers can hear what the words actually sound like. 

The biggest problem in developing a dictionary from a language that has neither a full dictionary of its own nor a body of literature to draw nuance from is that one is entirely dependent on oral speech, and oral speech via an English that itself might not be fluent, or which may have acquired its own idiosyncratic meanings. Tastes are notoriously difficult to articulate. Hence, the specialized and easily ridiculed vocabulary of the wine trade with its “blackberry and a hint of oak,” flavors few of us can clearly recognize and even if we could when isolated, cannot differentiate them amongst the blend of flavors that is a sip of wine. That said, we used the concept of describing by analogy one flavor with another to help clarify taste terms that lack direct analogues in English. Salty, sour, and bitter are easy. Salt is salty. Yogurt is sour. Orange rind is bitter. There is an easy cross-cultural understanding of these fundamental tongue-tastes. Where it gets difficult is when we encounter words for which we don’t have an English analogue. Probably the most frustrating word for us was keisukut. This is the taste of milk in the final state of sourness. The curds have solidified. If you don’t do something with it soon, it goes off, and becomes kong’u, spoiled and inedible. Everyone kept telling us “salty,” and, indeed this is how it is defined in Jon Holtzman’s book on Samburu food. It took years of visits to tease out that there is no salt in the taste, but that it is something more akin to the bitterness of the pith of an orange combined with an intense sour. 

We have done our best to reflect the understanding of our Samburu fiends and informants. The culture is changing so rapidly that already a great deal has been lost in the last twenty years, and like elsewhere, change is accelerating. Change in response to changing conditions is what humans are good at. Short walks from towns like Lengusaka, Wamba, and Lodomoque bring you to settlements and a way of life that seems eternal. But profound changes have already occurred precipitated buy the twin forces of ecological degradation and economic development. The loss of of their cow herds began with the drought of 1984. Each of the major droughts can be understood as a lottery. The cows are moved from drier places to wetter places. If your cows are well positioned to move to good pasture and if the path you choose for them to that pasture ends up having enough forage and water, then you win. If your path doesn’t work out or the place you aim for turns out to no longer be able to support your cows once they get there, then you lose. In the conditions of the deep droughts, when you lose, you lose everything. Two hundred cows to zero. And it isn’t possible to build back. Demand for forage from goats and sheep is relentless. The lands’ carrying capacity is reduced with each severe drought as the land is both structurally damaged by the droughts, and recovery is retarded by continued grazing pressure. And thus, over the last thirty years, the cow-based pastoralism of the Samburu has been reduced to what it is today, at best a peripheral economic and social activity. 

As the Samburu milk culture is cow-centric, the virtual elimination of cow milk from the Samburu diet has meant an erosion of milk-related connoisseurship and cultural practices. Once we recognized this, then we began to focus our research on older women, the only people understood to still retain  deep milk-related cultural knowledge. Even then, lacking practice with cow milk, it is very possible that some of the data collected for this dictionary is derived from memories that may be a decade or more old. This is probably a general problem with ethnographic or dialect dictionaries collected towards the end of cultural cycles. 

As the cultural practices that underpin the Samburu milk-related culinary vocabulary, and, in fact, as Northern Maa itself is under pressure, we have made an effort to offer comparisons between words so that we can at least preserve some of the relationships between word. 

But, creating a dictionary in a language you don’t know is a project fraught with pitfalls. 

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