MU linguist, team to research threatened African languages

Sunday, June 29, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:56 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 29, 2014
MU English professor Michael Marlo will be part of team of four in Kenya thanks to an African language research grant. The team will study four languages for four years and write books about each.

COLUMBIA — Although Michael Marlo is not fluent in African languages, he certainly can say hello.

It's "Mulembe!" in Luyia, and that means "peace." Or "Oli mulamu?" which means, "Are you healthy?"

"Ndina?" means "How are you?" in Tiriki.

In Bukusu, another common greeting is "Nono?" It can be translated to mean, "So, what's up?"

Marlo's vocabulary is about to get a lot bigger thanks to a grant he and six colleagues from across the country were awarded in May to study four of the many Luyia languages. With the four-year, $330,000 National Science Foundation grant, Marlo and his fellow grantees will study Bukusu, Logoori, Tiriki and Wanga to write a series of books on each of the languages.

The team also will write a grammatical sketch, a preliminary dictionary and a collection of folk tales and other narratives for each language. The project involves a mix of work in the U.S. and Kenya; research assistants in Africa are already collecting narratives.

Luyia is a group of Bantu languages spoken in Eastern Africa. Marlo first encountered them as an undergraduate linguistics major at Indiana University when he took a required yearlong field methods class that focused on Lusaamia, a Luyia language spoken in Western Kenya. He was hooked.

"I was actually terrified going into it because all I knew was a little bit about French and Spanish. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into," Marlo said.

The students learned about Lusaamia in a nontraditional method: by interviewing a native speaker of the language.

That native speaker became Marlo's collaborator on a book he wrote on Lusaamia with his professor.

"It was one of maybe three works written on the language, and the first really serious description of the structure of the grammar of the language," he said.

After he completed his undergraduate degree, Marlo decided to continue studying Luyia languages in graduate school because he was already on his way. He ended up doing his doctoral research on varieties of Luyia languages and spent five months in Kenya doing field work in 2006. He received his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 2007.

In 2010, he joined the faculty at MU where he teaches field methods in linguistics, phonology, structure of American English and syntax in the linguistics department.

In January 2013, Marlo and his colleague Michael Diercks, an assistant professor at Pomona College, applied for a National Science Foundation grant and narrowly missed being funded. The linguistics program director at the foundation encouraged the pair to revise and resubmit the proposal, which they did in August 2013. This time they were funded, and it became official at the end of May.

Marlo said he's excited by the prospect of studying largely undocumented languages because "you can't go to the library or anywhere to find out about them because nobody has written about it."

With a population of about 6 million, Luyia is a fairly large ethnic community.There are more than 20 distinct subgroups of Luyia, each speaking their own dialect. Most of the individual Luyia communities are fairly small and do not have a written tradition. Because the languages could be endangered due to increasing influence by other languages, they are important to study, Marlo said.

"When languages disappear, speakers lose a major piece of their culture and linguists lose the ability to study what those languages might reveal about human nature," he said. "At the moment, the Luyia languages can generally be considered safe in the sense that there are substantial communities of speakers, and children are learning the languages."

He said there are some signs of threat, however; some children, especially in middle-and upper-class households, are not learning their indigenous languages but instead only Swahili and English, the official languages of Kenya.

"My worry is if it’s seen that the wealthy kids don’t need the language, you can get a stigma attached to the language — that this is a language of the poor and it should be shunned if you want to get ahead," he said.

David Odden, professor emeritus at Ohio State University and a member of the team, will be focusing on Logoori during the four-year project. He agrees the languages are in danger.

"There is a longterm risk, especially given modern mobility," Odden said. "Vocabulary items are at risk of being lost, and distinctive grammatical features of individual languages are at risk of being smoothed out in favor of a more homogenous generalized Luyia."

The team has already begun its research and will continue until spring 2018.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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