BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Much research addresses how and why many of the
earth's thousands of languages are disappearing.
The question still arises, however, as to why it should matter
to the rest of us if, say, Pite Sami, a language spoken by
fewer than 20 inhabitants of Norway and Sweden, should vanish from
the face of the Earth.
Jeff Good, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of
Linguistics in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and
Sciences, says that we should attend to these losses because even
seldom-used languages can tell us a great deal about the methods of
categorization of the natural and mental world and because they can
serve as vital links between the present and the prehistoric
Good is the recipient of a recent grant and a fellowship from
the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the
Humanities' Documenting Endangered Languages Program, a new,
multi-year effort to preserve records of key languages before they
He says, "As the numbers of languages decline, we lose rich and
distinct cultural variations from which we can learn a great deal
in fields as far ranging as anthropology, agriculture, linguistics,
philosophy, geography and prehistory."
His current research involves six languages spoken in a cluster
of villages in the northwest highlands of Cameroon, a country in
which more than 200 different languages are spoken, from Aghem to
Good says that from a scientific standpoint, the work of
linguists today is like that of early botanical and zoological
explorers and collectors who went into the field to document the
diversity of living things in the world, with no idea of what they
"Of course there is a human dimension to linguistics study," he
says, "since linguists also work to preserve for the speakers
themselves, their descendants and posterity information about
cultures that find themselves marginalized by the modern world.
Good says, "Although in principle, cultural knowledge can be
transmitted apart from language -- as the Irish, for instance, can
attest -- in practice, the political and economic forces that cause
people to give up their languages also cause them to lose cultural
knowledge," he says.
He notes that very often, the last speakers also are among the
last who remember traditional stories, songs and histories.
"The languages of concern to me," he says, "are in the Bantu
language family, which itself includes 500 or 600 distinct
languages. The languages I study remain alive in part because the
hilly terrain of this area seems to foster language variety and
isolates the region commercially and politically.
"In fact, people living in one village may speak an entirely
different language than that spoken in the next village," Good
says, noting that people in such circumstances are multilingual by
necessity. In addition to speaking their own languages and those of
nearby villages, many also speak the official languages of
Cameroon, which are English and French.
"When these villagers move to a new place," he says, "they add
new languages to their repertoire, rather than replacing one
language with another. Even in large cities they maintain their
native languages by attending regular 'country meetings' with their
Social groups like 'country meetings' are important, Good says,
because as the speakers of a minor language disappear or die, those
who are left are often absorbed -- along with the special aspects
of their culture -- into larger social and language groups.
This is less likely to occur, he says, if speakers of a minority
language (even those fluent in the lingua franca) are able to
retain the use of their original tongue, if not in all spheres of
life, at least within the home.
The NEH grants will fund Good's documentary and descriptive work
on two groups of under-described languages, the endangered Western
Beboid languages and the moribund languages of the Furu Awa
subdivision and will produce the first comprehensive descriptive
materials on the grammar and lexicon of these languages.
Although much work in the classification of the 500-plus Bantu
languages (including Swahili and Zulu) spoken throughout southern
Africa remains to be done, Good says it is generally believed that
the ancestors of the 240 million modern-day Bantu language speakers
migrated in prehistoric times from the borderland area in Cameroon
where he works.
When his study is complete, Good will have produced primary
documentation resources of the endangered languages studied and
descriptive materials on the languages in the form of annotated
recordings and initial descriptions of the languages' grammars.
He also will construct a comparative database of grammatical
information on Western Beboid and closely related languages and
produce recommendations for tool design for field linguistics,
including structured annotations of grammatical data containing
links to linguistic ontologies.
Good has conducted fieldwork on other African languages and
worked on the Comparative Bantu Online Dictionary and a lexical
database for the Turkish Electronic Living Lexicon project.
He also is technical director of the Rosetta Project, for which
he oversees the development of standards and tool for accessioning
data into the Rosetta data management system.
Good has published a score of articles in linguistic journals,
with three additional articles forthcoming and two under review.
Also forthcoming from Oxford University Press is his edited volume,
"Linguistic Universals and Language Change."
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