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Linguist Explains Why He Documents Disappearing Bantu Languages

He calls them a rich source of information about our own potential and our unknown past

Release Date: January 22, 2008

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 past.

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 become extinct.

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 Zulgo.

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 might find.

"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 fellow villagers."

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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