Scholars expand documentation of endangered African language

LAWRENCE — Since becoming interested in endangered languages, University of Kansas linguist Philip Duncan has tried to use his “outsider” status to support communities in their language reclamation and revitalization efforts, whether they are from rural Mexico or, as in his latest publication, in West Africa.

Philip Duncan

Duncan, who is an assistant teaching professor in KU’s Department of Linguistics, is co-editor and co-author of a new book titled “Ikpana Interrogatives,” which is part of the Oxford University Press series of Studies of Endangered Languages.

Ikpana is a language within the Kwa family, spoken by about 7,000 people in southeast Ghana. It can also be classified as one of the Ghana-Togo Mountain Languages spoken in that region.

The book documents the typical grammar and intonation of question phrases in the language, documentation which can be of use for Ikpana community members as well as the broader linguistics community.

By extensively documenting Ikpana questions in this way, the author/editors wrote, they are also working to broaden “our understanding of the nature of human language.”

Duncan and his colleagues spent the bulk of their time over two summers working with Ikpana speakers in two of the eight Ghanaian townships and settlements in which they are concentrated. They talked about how questions are formed and iterated, working together to detail grammatical properties and contexts of use.

When asked if he speaks Ikpana, Duncan said, “I think it is very important for a linguist not only to study languages but also to learn how to use them, because I think you engage with it differently. But as an outsider who is a non-Indigenous person, trying to be an ally and working with Indigenous communities on their language efforts, I believe it's not my choice to say, ‘I'm going to learn this language simply because I'm studying it.’ So I take it as an invitation ... because I see language as tied to sovereignty. It's not my sovereign right to speak the language in that way. It's an invitation as an outsider to be able to interact with the language in ways that community members deem appropriate. ... Good scholarship is essentially predicated on things like respect, relationship and reciprocity.”

Duncan said he and his colleagues consulted with the now deceased Ghana-born scholar Kofi Dorvlo and built upon his previous efforts to document Ikpana.

Initially based in the regional capital city of Ho, the scholars fanned out each day during their fieldwork. Eventually the team relocated to Logba Alakpeti and Logba Tota.

“We would meet as a group and plan out the stuff that we wanted to get, datawise — typically starting out to orient us to the language in simple words and phrases, and then building into more complex structures like questions over time,” Duncan said. “We also asked if people were willing to share Anansi stories, which are folk tales about a spider, trickster figure that are very common across communities in West Africa.”

It was during these conversations, Duncan said, that the researchers’ outsider perspective sometimes proved useful.

“We were learning so much from the speakers who are giving us their time and their knowledge and expertise,” he said. “Sometimes it's fun when we ask something, and we don't know what's going to happen  ... People might say, ‘Oh, no, that's not going to be possible.’ And then it's like, ‘Wait a minute! Actually, that sounds perfectly fine ... let me think about that a little bit more.’

“It was great, because then we would get several speakers conversing with one another ... going back and forth ... like, ‘We can totally say that. I remember I said this the other day.’ It's great to have those kinds of moments where we're practicing what ... we're trying to document.”

Duncan said he is pleased with “Ikpana Interrogatives.”

“One goal is hopefully to provide materials and descriptions that people within the community can potentially latch onto, to build other materials that might be relevant for pedagogical materials or other kinds of things ... that really promote the continued use among community members. That's one thing that I feel is important about our project — that even though we're coming in with goals as outside researchers, hopefully we are producing some stuff that will respect and also be of benefit to community members.”

Image: KU linguist Philip Duncan took this selfie while on a research trip to Ghana. Credit: Courtesy of Philip Duncan

Thu, 05/11/2023


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service