Research team to document African languages

A four-year grant was given by the National Science Foundation to properly document Luyia languages of Africa.

With more than 6,900 languages in the world, approximately 2,050 are said to be dead by the year 2050; however, assistant professor of English Michael Marlo and a team of scholarly researchers will not let four Luyia languages in Africa fit into that category.

A four-year grant of $343,479 was given to the project by the National Science Foundation in effort to properly document the Bukusu, Wanga, Logoori, and Tiriki languages of Africa. The foundation gets about 40,000 proposals a year for funding and accepts approximately 11,000.

The grant, which began June 1, is “a culmination of work that I have been doing and my colleagues have been doing on the Luyia languages for a number of years,” said Marlo, the principal investigator for the project.

Preliminary data has been gathered on all four languages. With that data, along with other research, the Luyia languages will be properly documented by Marlo’s team.

“Our project will generate a dictionary for each language.” Marlo said. “We are going to write for the first time really detailed studies of the grammar of the language — how you put words together, how you put sentences together. You can’t right now go to any library in the world and find that information.”

Marlo will work alongside a team of other experts to work on the team to help document these languages. Two of the team members are David Odden, a professor at Ohio State University, and Christopher Green, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland. Odden is contributing his knowledge of the Logoori language, while Green has knowledge of the Wanga language, as well as assisting in data processing.

Odden will be working closely with people who speak the Logoori language in the US.

“There are linguists who are involved with this project who speak some of these languages,” Odden said. “So, there is a great benefit working with people in Africa.”

Green’s interest in Luyia languages, and Wanga in particular, began when he was in graduate school at Indiana University.

“I was first exposed to Wanga in a year-long field methods class,” Green said. “I discovered a previously undescribed characteristic of Wanga nouns, and continued working with a Wanga consultant after the class had ended in order to explore it further.”

Green said he has been working for several years with Marlo to process collected data from their consultants in Kenya.

Though the grant only lasts four years, the research will continue long after the grant ends. The researchers have a bigger picture in mind that complements their drive for this project.

According to Odden, a linguist, one question is the basis of all linguistic research: what is the nature of human language?

“You can learn a little bit by looking at how English works, how French works, how Russian works,” Odden said. “But that’s a very limited perspective, so we believe in fact that you need to look up the broadest range possible of human languages to understand how human languages really work.”

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