A Brief History of the Chichewa Dictionary Project Print
Cover of the Dictionary

The picture shows the cover of the newest edition of our Chichewa Dictionary, published by Oxford University Press in September 2016. The author, Steven Paas (PhD), is grateful to all who throughout the years have assisted him in his work of compiling the dictionary. He started his lexicographical activity in 1997, when he was preparing for service in Malawi, the beating heart of Chichewa-speaking Africa. From his vantage point at Zomba Theological College and as a minister of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian he came to realise that - although Chichewa had become the most widely known name for the language - some users prefer the name Chinyanja, which in Zambia is spelled as Cinyanja and in Mozambique as Cinianja.


Why do we focus this project? The English language has acquired an important position in the societies of Central and Southern Africa. However, the vernacular languages have remained indispensable vehicles of communication. For more than 20 million people in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, the Chichewa (or Chinyanja/ Cinyanja) has become the most significant language of daily life. The language has gained importance and strength by developments in its written and oral use, and because an increasing number of its speakers have come to discover and emphasise their common linguistic heritage and practice. That is why it has become an intermediary language for all Malawians, and for many people in the whole of Central and Southern Africa.

A Crisis of Communication

Since the beginning of my involvement in Chichewa speaking Africa I have experienced a crisis of communication, which is caused by the difference between cultures and languages. In general this crisis affects all situations of learning and communication. Of course in schools the crisis is more acute than anywhere else. The communication gap especially affects the poor, the illiterate, the orphans and the sick, because it bars their social mobility and emancipation. In the past especially learners of Chichewa or English were handicapped by the absence of Dictionaries in their mother languages.

Book Versions of the Dictionary

Fortunately his situation has changed by our Chichewa Dictionary. First, we had the opportunity of compiling separate dictionaries, English-Chichewa (EC) and Chichewa-English (CE). Donors helped to publish and spread them. In the course of time tens of thousands of books have been distributed for free, mainly to secondary school pupils. By February 2009 the two books had run out of stock. They have not been reprinted and are to be considered obsolete.

Subsequently we decided to have the separate EC and CE collections combined to one volume. In 2009 the combined CE-EC Dictionary began its history, published by Kachere in Zomba. In 2010 the second edition was published, by Foundation Heart for Malawi. In February 2012 the third edition saw light, through VTR-Publications in Nürnberg, Germany. The fourth edition, printed in China, for the first time on thin bible paper, was published by Foundation Heart for Malawi in cooperation with Christian Literature in Action in Malawi (CLAIM), Blantyre, in 2013. The present or fifth edition is a 2016 publication of Oxford University Press – Oxford Regional Business in Southern Africa (OUP-ORBIS) in Cape Town.

The Online Version of the Dictionary

Besides, an important move was made when the CE-EC Dictionary went online, on 28th May 2010. Click the button ‘use dictionary’ in top of the screen. Full access is free. The screen of the site of the Online Dictionary has been adapted to smartphone use. We expect that the paper and online versions will sustain one another in attracting the attention of potential users and to encourage sponsors of the Project. We are continuing the work of improvement, research, and collection of vocabulary for later editions. The process of improving and expanding the dictionary and of its distribution requires a lot of effort, intellectually, organisationally and financially.

Financing the Project

Our project, which started in 1997, belongs to a tradition of Chichewa lexicography, which began in 1854. For a survey of the history of Chichewa dictionaries and collections of vocabulary, click the buttons ‘Chichewa’ and ‘Lexicography’. Since the beginning the process of research, printing and distribution has relied mainly on external funding, often by missionary organisations. The editions of our Chichewa Dictionary too have been largely financed by well-wishers, especially the following private persons and foundations (Dutch: stichtingen), in alphabetical order: Burgland Charitas, Edukans, Evanaid, Koekoek, H.M., and A.A., Liberty, Metgezel, Oikonómos, Protestants Steunfonds, Rotterdam, Share4More, (Anonymous through) Stéphanos, Verheij Consultancy, Weeshuis der Doopsgezinden, Werkgroep Zambia.

The present edition marks a difference, because it is fully financed by its publisher OUP-ORBIS. Undoubtedly to an extent this move of commercializing the Dictionary will meaningfully contribute to the continuity and sustainability of the Project. We expect that in this way the Chichewa Dictionary is connecting to the market for dictionaries, which has gradually developed in Chichewa (Chinyanja/ Cinyanja/ Cinianja) -speaking Africa. We trust that the positive trend of the selling of dictionaries will continue to be strengthened by economic and educational developments. A growing part of the general public is able to order and purchase books, mostly through their bookshops, but gradually also by electronic means through the Internet. However, many users of Chichewa have never seen the inside of a bookshop. Yet, many of them are learners, especially the young people at schools. They need the Dictionary in the first place. We sincerely hope that more ngo’s, government offices, schools, churches and other institutions are going to buy the book for their employees, students and other members.

We are sure that the educational leaders of Chichewa-speaking Africa are becoming increasingly conscious of their linguistic responsibilities. Good examples are the activities of the Centre for Language Studies of the University of Malawi in Zomba, and the Malawi Institute of Education at Domasi. They show the growing input of Africans in the field of lexicography. May we encourage the ministries of education, through their subsidy programmes, to get the Dictionary within reach of learners and teachers. By supporting the Dictionary Project they contribute to the combatting of basic educational problems in Chichewa-speaking Africa. The Dictionary reduces the barrier between peoples and the gap between cultures, and it opens the gates to learning and development.

Providing a tool for communication in Chichewa/ Chinyanja speaking Africa   Webmaster -  Copyright © 2024 Steven Paas