Documentation of endangered languages and cultures in the Nigeria-Cameroon borderland

 

This project supported by the AHRC will run for a three and a half years from 1 Jan 2006. It will concentrate on endangered languages on the Nigeria-Cameroon borderland.

The Nigeria-Cameroon borderland is one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world, with many languages either near extinction or severely endangered. This project builds on previous work by the participants in surveying and documenting endangered languages in this region. One example is the language of the Somyewe, a small group of blacksmiths whose language and culture are on the verge of disappearing. Documentation of two other local languages will also be undertaken. Documentation will follow best practice procedures as developed by the EMELD initiative, and will be situated in context of the linguistic and cultural ecology of the region.

The project is directed by Dr David Zeitlyn from the Anthropology Department, University of Kent, and it brings the Canadian linguist Bruce Connell to Kent. Dr Connell is an acknowledged expert in endangered languages, especially in Africa, and an authority on the langugaes of the Nigeria-Cameroon borderland.
In November 2006 Dr Connell was awarded the Silver Jubilee award for his work on and the support for the development of Nigerian languages by the Linguistic Association of Nigeria.


An article "Drop 'raiders of lost argot' act" by Tony Tysome was published in The Times Higher Education Supplement on Friday, 20 October 2006. This was critical of what it characterised as the Indiana Jones attitudes of some linguists working on endangered languages.
We wrote a response which appeared on Friday, 27 October 2006, as follows:

The story "Drop 'raiders of lost argot' act" (October 20) does little more than trivialise the issue of language endangerment. The preservation of linguistic diversity is important. It is not merely a question of "documenting dying languages". Linguistic diversity, cultural diversity and biodiversity are all interlinked; loss of a language inevitably leads to a diminishment of the world's cultural heritage, as has been recognised by Unesco with whom we worked in Cameroon. Far from being an endeavour in which individuals can play the hero, endangered language work is a painstaking venture, always collaborative, and resulting in little tangible reward for the linguists. Bruce Connell and David Zeitlyn. University of Kent, Canterbury

Since our letter was shortened in the editorial process we append our original text below
Reply
The issue of language endangerment is raised in Tony Tysome's "Drop 'raiders of lost argot' act" (THES October 20 2006). While the attention given to the question of language endangerment is welcome (at least on the principle that 'any publicity is good publicity'), we feel Tysome's article does little more than trivialize the matter. Language endangerment, or to put it in slightly different perspective, the preservation of linguistic diversity, is important. It is not merely a question of 'documenting dying languages for the sake of research' (although this in itself is a valid and valuable endeavour). Linguistic diversity, cultural diversity and biodiversity are all interlinked; loss of linguistic inevitably leads to a diminishment of the world's cultural heritage and consequently its biodiversity. Having worked with and among endangered and minority languages and their speakers collectively and individually for over 20 years in various parts of Africa, we can say with some confidence that few if any scholars involved with endangered languages and cultures have grand pretentions as to their work, and few if any consider themselves to be 'heroic'. To the contrary, in contemporary linguistics the fieldwork involved in the documentation of an endangered language is just about as unglamorous and as lacking in prestige as it gets.
The intimate relation between language and culture and the importance of maintaining diversity in both is increasingly accepted. UNESCO has recognized this, and through its Intangible Heritage Unit, has established an Endangered Languages Program. Under its auspices, we collaborate with linguists and other local scholars in Cameroon to work toward the establishment of programs in that country to preserve its linguistic heritage. Far from being an endeavour in which particular individuals can play the role of hero, endangered language work, if it is to be successful, is always a collaborative venture involving painstaking work and resulting in little tangible reward. If Professor Matras finds he has colleagues who 'have adopted a pretentious attitude', we can only suggest that this has nothing to do with language endangerment. Such people are to be found in all academic disciplines and indeed in all walks of life.


Related PhDs

From September 2006 some PhD students are working on the project.

The general topics of the PhDs cover the following:

The Cultural Ecology of Language Loss

This PhD project has been planned as an integral part of the overall project. It aims to understand and describe some of the broader cultural factors that mitigate for and against linguistic survival in the Cameroon / Nigerian borderlands where the project is focussed. They will be undertaking their field work at the same time that Connell and Zeitlyn will be making fieldtrips as apart of this project so supervision will extend from Kent to the field. This permits a degree of flexibility in this aspect of the project, such that decisions can be made in the field in response to the combination of local circumstances, the interests of the student to be appointed, and the overall aims of this project. The student will compare and contrast the cultures of language use among Wawa and Njanga in Cameroon. On the basis of initial work undertaken by Connell these will provide a powerful contrast between still viable but threatened and almost extinct languages. A series of studies of attitudes to the different languages spoken in three Wawa villages and at Mbonjanga will provide the empirical core of the PhD.

Linguistic documentation of endangered languages

The student will work under the supervision of Dr Connell (with Dr Zeitlyn being on their PhD committee), to undertake the primary linguistic documentation of Wawa and Njanga. They will be undertaking their field work at the same time that Connell and Zeitlyn will be making fieldtrips as apart of this project so supervision will extend from Kent to the field. This permits a degree of flexibility in this aspect of the project, such that decisions can be made in the field in response to the combination of local circumstances, the interests of the student to be appointed and the overall aims of this project. The working plan for this student is to develop and collect a representative corpus of language material for the documentation of Wawa and Njanga and to organize this material in an archivable documentation. Data collection will be done at Mbondjanga and at least one Wawa village. These two languages are at different stages with respect to endangerment and attrition, which makes the problem of determining what is representative in each case central to the work. In addition, since language documentation of this nature is still a relatively new aspect of linguistics, the work of this student has the potential to make a significant contribution to the field.

Project PhD students

Sascha Sebastian Griffiths

I am a PhD-student of Social Anthropology at Kent University under supervision of Bruce Connell and David Zeitlyn. I studied English, Linguistics, Mathematics and Educational Sciences at the University of Bielefeld. My Master thesis is Expressive Speech and Expressive Speech Output for HCI. It concentrates on a phonetic model of paralinguistic and extra-linguistic features of prosody for use in speech synthesis. My supervisor for this was Dafydd Gibbon.

In linguistics my main interests, apart from language endangerment are the syntax, prosody, speech synthesis, lexicography, and the foundations of language (universals, acquisition, evolution,) among other topics of course. I still have to catch up with a lot on social anthropology. Recent readings have also drawn my attention to evolutionary anthropology and cognitive anthropology. The details of my PhD project have yet to be finalised. I would like to look at the use of field tools, multimodal communication, productivity of endangered languages and general documentation of endangered languages.
Contact: ssg2 (at) kent dot ac dot uk


To email David Zeitlyn please send to "d dot zeitlyn at kent dot ac dot uk"
or
To email Bruce Connell please send to "b dot a dot connell at kent dot ac dot uk"

 

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Created 4 Jan 2006 last modified 20 Oct 2006 Funded by: