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MSU linguist works to save endangered language

Friday, August 31, 2007

You’ve heard of endangered animals or perhaps endangered plants. But endangered languages? That’s right. MSU linguist Deogratias Ngonyani spent the 2006-07 academic year in the southern highlands of Tanzania, where he is conducting research to help preserve Kikisi, one of the more than 120 languages spoken by fewer than 10,000 people in four Kisi villages (Lifuma, Lupingu, Makonde, and Nindi) on the northeastern shore of Lake Malawi.

“The death of any language means the disappearance of knowledge and linguistic data. So the documentation of endangered languages is part of a global effort to preserve cultural diversity and to understand the very nature of human communication,” Ngonyani said.

Ngonyani specializes in morphology (the study and description of word formation), descriptive linguistics and African languages. He is also an associate professor in the Department o f Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages and is one of the 12 U.S. recipients of a research fellowship from the National endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation as part of the agencies’ joint Documenting Endangered Languages program.

A native speaker of Kindendeule, another Tanzanian language, Ngonyani has taught Swahili and linguistics at MSU since 1999. “The project is based on the recognition that every language expresses a unique culture and world-view,” says Ngonyani.

The professor’s task will include surveying the use of the Kikisi language and writing a descriptive grammar; creating audio and video recordings of folktales, conversations, rituals, songs, poems and language games; transcribing oral traditions into written form for wider use in the villages; and exploring the nature of words in language using examples from Kikisi.

By collecting data related to syntax and word structure, Ngonyani’s research will add invaluable data to the field of comparative Bantu linguistics and clarify the relationship of Kikisi to other languages in southern Tanzania. In addition, he will collaborate with colleagues based at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Goteborg University (Sweden) on Languages of Tanzania, a linguistic atlas of all languages in the country. Experts estimate that more than half of the approximately 7,000 currently used human languages are headed for extinction in the next hundred years. Ngonyani was born in Tanzania and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Dar es Salaam before coming to the United States in 1991. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees in linguistics from UCLA in 1996.

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