MU English professor receives National Science Foundation grant to study African languages

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 | 5:03 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — An assistant MU professor of English has received a prestigious grant to study rare African languages, an MU news release announced Wednesday.

Michael Marlo received the four-year $330,000 National Science Foundation grant to study several varieties of Luyia, a group of Bantu languages of Kenya and Uganda.

These African languages are perpetuated through oral tradition, leaving them largely unstudied and undocumented. With the spread of English and Swahili, the longevity of Luyia languages are threatened, according to the news release.

The grant, according to the news release, is the largest grant ever received by the department of English at MU and will allow the researchers to investigate the Luyia languages and document their linguistic properties.

"NSF grants are hardly ever housed in English departments, making this award especially impressive and exciting," David Read, chair of MU's English department, said in the release.

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that funds about 24 percent of the federally supported research conducted by American colleges and universities. The foundation receives approximately 40,000 grant proposals each year, 11,000 of which are funded, according to its website.

"We will be investigating the complexity and richness of four varieties of Luyia: Bukusu, Logoori, Tiriki and Wanga," Marlo said in the release. "This kind of study reinforces the value of the language among its speakers, which is especially important for young people since they are the future of each language."

Marlo will work with co-principal investigator Vicki Carstens, professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; Michael Diercks, assistant professor at Pomona College; Kristopher Ebarb, who will be a post-doctoral researcher at MU; Christopher Green, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland; David Odden, professor emeritus at Ohio State University; and Mary Paster, associate professor at Pomona College, to study the languages in terms of syntax, or sentence structure, and phonology, or sound systems.

Some researchers will even be traveling to Luyia communities in western Kenya to conduct interviews with native speakers of these languages.

Throughout the project, the team will produce detailed reports on each language, including a grammatical outline, a dictionary and several other documents.

"I believe this is a good model to use for language documentation and description," Marlo said in the release. "The methodology is replicable."

According to the release, most of the materials collected as part of the project will be made available online for free, including oral histories, folk tales, songs and other cultural recordings.

Supervising editor is Mary Ryan.

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