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Kate and Sue McBeth, Missionary Teachers to the Nez Perce

Nez Perce-English Dictionary
Dictionary Example 1                Dictionary Example 2

Sue McBeth's interest in language culminated in her effort to produce a Nez Perce-English Dictionary. Intended primarily as an aid to evangelistic outreach by Nez Perce ministers and missionaries, it provided McBeth untold hours of intellectual stimulation and satisfaction. On March 14, 1874 she writes.

"In my last letter I told Dr. Lowrie what I had been doing in the Nez Perce language with Mr Whitman's help. I enjoy such work and my University experience comes to my aid in it very much. And I was in a measure, compelled to begin it, but for my work & because I can only learn a language through understanding it or rather I must know something of its principles or I cannot remember it. There is no book such as Dr. Lowrie speaks of nothing printed in the language save a few hymns, and the Gospel of Matthew by Mr. Spalding – I found only about 80 words (N.P.) written down (by the Rev. Mr. Montieth) here and the first thing that struck me as a hindrance in the work, was the lack of some such book. I spoke to Mr. A when I came but he could not attend to it, and as I needed it very much, in my own work, and saw no other way I began it myself. Dr Lowrie spoke of an alphabet he thought could be adapted to it. Would he please tell me where & how I could get it? The vowel sounds are the same in the Nez P as in the Choctaw – the diphthongs similar & some of the same consonants wanting in both. The consonant sounds of b, c, d, f, g, q, r & are abundant in N.P. But enough of this. As I acquire Nez Perce words I have been teaching, verbs by blackboard with their English definitions to my pupils at least such as come into their lessons & daily intercourse with them & found that it facilitates their studies very much & helped my influence with them."

McBeth's first attempt at organizing a Nez Perce vocabulary reached the Smithsonian in 1875. By 1885, she consistently characterized her collection as containing at least 10,000 words. In fact, less than 2,000 Nez Perce words are in the dictionary. The methodology for organizing the dictionary - having Nez Perce ministerial students copy English words from an English dictionary and translate the words into Nez Perce - was problematic. Often, it was necessary to "invent" a new word in Nez Perce when no equivalent existed. Following Sue McBeth's death in 1893, Kate McBeth mailed the dictionary by steamship to the Smithsonian Institute. The boat carrying the manuscript exploded and burned on the Columbia River. An uncanny chain of events saved the irreplaceable dictionary. The manuscript was found floating in the river by an acquaintance who recognized Sue McBeth's handwriting. He dried the water soaked pages and re-mailed the work. The water stains remain visible. The Smithsonian Finders Guide contains the following [edited] description of the dictionary.

2487 McBeth, Sue L.
Dictionary and grammar of the Nez Perce language. Compiled over a period of 20 years while the author was a missionary at Lapwai, Idaho....Consists of the following sections:
(1) English-Nez Perce vocabulary. 8 pp. Rec'd in Smithsonian Inst. Aug. 1875
(2) English-Nez Perce dictionary. 735 pages filled with English words but only about 1800 Nez Perce equivalents have been filled in
(3) Vocabulary notes. Principally English-Nez Perce notations: some Nez Perce-English. Not alphabetically arranged. 2 vols., about 100 pages each. This is apparently the original material from which the final or "clean" copy
(no. 2 above) was being prepared. It probably contains data which had not yet been entered in the final copy.

The deteriorated quality of the dictionary renders legible scanning uncertain. A microfilm copy of the dictionary is available for scholarly use at the University of Idaho Library.