Saturday, September 30, 2023

Innovations: Living language

September 6, 2006
Associate Professor of African languages and linguistics Deogratias Ngonyani sits in his office in Wells Hall. Ngonyani hopes to host a Study Abroad in Tanzania next summer. —

Name: Deogratias Ngonyani, associate professor

Department: Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages

Type of research: Language documentation

Date of research: Ngonyani said he plans on leaving for Tanzania sometime this month and will be there for nine months.

He has done this type of research with two other African languages, but they were more vibrant in the number of speakers and locations in which they were spoken.

Basics of the project: Ngonyani is focused on collecting information about Kikisi, an African language facing extinction, and what functions it performs.

The language is only spoken among members of the community and is not written, he said.

"Kikisi is spoken by less than 10,000 people, and the number of speakers are decreasing over time," Ngonyani said.

Ngonyani will be collecting information about the language by writing down oral traditions, songs and folk tales. He also will be observing people and the way they use the language.

Documentation enables researchers to keep record of a culture, Ngonyani said. "It is a window to history and culture."

He will be using Swahili script to document the language because anyone who can read it will be able to understand it.

Social impact of research: "It is a small language to begin with," Ngonyani said. "It is only spoken in a small community. Languages that are more widely spoken are taking over."

By documenting the language, he hopes to create a vocabulary list and compile a dictionary. He also hopes to collect information on grammar.

Ngonyani said Swahili is the most widely spoken language, and more dominant languages have much more vitality because they are used in more than one community.

"After I have collected data and come back, I hope to put narratives and folk tales into book form to be published locally and sent out to schools there," he said.

According to Ngonyani, language has many different functions.

"It is used for more than communication," he said. "It is an expression of culture and an identifying mark for a community."

Documentation advocates the ideal of cultural linguistics, Ngonyani said.

"Language expresses the world view of the speech community," he said.

Grants and funding: Ngonyani received a $40,000 research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

The program, entitled "Documenting Endangered Languages," strives to save languages that are facing extinction. Ngonyani was one of 12 recipients from the United States.

The College of Arts and Letters and his department also are helping him by hiring a replacement for his classes and giving him support.


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