Professor helps Kenyan community develop dictionary to preserve Ekegusii language

Fri, 05/09/2014


George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas anthropology researcher has helped community members in western Kenya develop the first dictionary of their local Ekegusii language.

It's a Bantu language that has had trouble surviving with Kiswahili and English as Kenya's national languages.

"Ethnically there is a large number of Ekegusiis, but people who actually claim competency in the language that is currently associated with them is relatively low," said Carlos Nash, an assistant professor of linguistic anthropology and language technology.

Nash aided the Kenyan authors, Kennedy Bosire and Gladys Machogu, with production of the dictionary that translates Ekegusii words, terms, idioms and local proverbs into English.

The dropping off in use of local languages in Africa is a major fear today, he said. The British occupation of Kenya in the early 1900s introduced English to the region, but most Kenyans were bilingual in English and their local language until Kenya gained its independence in the 1960s. Most people born since then speak Kiswahili and English.

Strict policies now only allow students to learn Kiswahili and English in school in second grade and beyond. There is still a relatively large elder population in the region who still do speak only Ekegusii.

"We have heard major concerns from the community that a lot of children were not learning the language any longer," Nash said. "They were having difficulty speaking to grandparents."

Nash originally became involved in the project in 2008 as a doctoral student at the University of California Santa Barbara and through CoLang: Institute on Collaborative Language Research (formerly InField), which provides training for linguists on a wide range of skills in community-centered language documentation.

Ekegusii has a tonal system, and CoLang researchers needed a phonologist to help decipher it. Nash spent time in Kenya collecting data, reaching out to the community there and helping provide Bosire and Machogu with the necessary tools they needed to produce the dictionary, which included technology and help with graphic design and formatting, for example. The project follows a model of anthropological research known as empowerment.

"Yes, we do research on the community, and yes, we do research for the community," Nash said. "But we also do research with the community in a sense that we train them to be able to produce academic knowledge for their own goals. So we're there to empower native speakers to save their own languages."

As Nash's academic research related to the Ekegusii tonal system continues, Bosire and Machogu were able to publish the dictionary in June 2013. They released it in Mombasi, Kenya's third largest city, and in Kisii, the authors' hometown.

The response has been positive. Kisii Governor James Ongwae publicly supported the effort and contributed funds to create a cultural center and cultural activities to foster various cultural groups in the area. Schools and libraries are getting the dictionary.

Nash hopes to build on the momentum in coming years to expand it to learning materials in Ekegusii to help children prior to second grade learn the language. There is a low literacy rate in the area, and Ekegusii is mostly just spoken.

"For most of them this is probably one of the first times they've seen a major print work of their language," he said.

And now they can read and see the meaning behind Ekegusii proverbs such as "Abarami ikubu riateka," which in English means: "Those who use foul language are like a burst rotten egg."

"It's actually more than a dictionary. It's a cultural product," Nash said. "They put everything in here that they found valuable within the culture. For them it was more about grasping or solidifying part of their identity."

Retracing the cultural history of the Ekegusii is part of his research on the language's tonal system. He considers the Ekegusii as probably a couple of different Bantu groups that have come together through migration, and there are features in the language he sees preserved that other Bantu languages have lost. It's also appears to be closely tied to a local language in Tanzania, so he is working to dig deeper and continues to do a typological analysis on understanding the history of Bantu languages.

Preserving endangered languages around the world is the mission of CoLang. KU played host to the 2012 CoLang institute, which Arienne Dwyer, a professor of linguistic anthropology, secured with a National Science Foundation grant, and she invited Nash to serve with her as co-director. The University of Texas at Arlington will host the 2014 institute in June and July.

"Languages are a product of the human mind, and anthropologists are interested in it and understanding why it is that the mind is so flexible to produce something this way and then also produce a compatible product in another way. It lets us understand who we are better," Nash said. "From a humanistic side, language is an aspect of our identity. For many of these people, if they lose their identity, not only do they lose that sort of sense of self, but they also lose part of their culture. There are things that our language preserves about our culture, and so for them, it's that culture and identity aspect that is important to keep."

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