Saturday, May 25, 2013

Endangered African language explored

Children growing up in the Rufiji region along the coast of Tanzania are learning Swahili as their first language.

Consequently, their parents are expected to be the last generation to be fluent in the minority language Ndengeleko. A new doctoral thesis in African languages from the University of Gothenburg is the first, and maybe last, attempt ever to explore Ndengeleko grammatically.

More than 120 languages are spoken in Tanzania. Most are minority languages spoken by various ethnic groups in the country. Eva-Marie Ström, the author of the thesis, estimates that Ndengeleko, which belongs to the Bantu language family, is currently spoken by about 72 000 people.

'Although this is not an extremely low number in the context of minority languages, my conclusion is that Ndengeleko is indeed endangered and will most likely disappear within a few generations,' she says.

Ström's study is based on interviews and recordings and was carried out on-site with speakers of the language who are interested in preserving their knowledge for future generations.

'My research gives a good description of the phonology of the language, or of the sounds used. It turns out that it has a rather limited number of consonants and vowels. Moreover, some consonants have disappeared from some words over time, making combinations of vowels common.'

In Ndengeleko – as in other Bantu languages in Africa – morphemes are combined to form long words. Morphemes are the small building blocks of words, and they all have a meaning. Combinations of morphemes can appear differently in different words depending on which vowels and consonants are involved. A large part of the analysis concerned these complex processes.

Descriptions of languages are important in order to understand people's linguistic abilities and how languages evolve. Also, languages can reveal information about the people who speak them and how they approach life and the world around them.

'Traditional research on languages and cognition is still largely based on Western languages. My thesis contributes to our understanding of human languages,' says Ström, who is also hoping that her study will help strengthen the self-confidence and status of Ndengeleko speakers.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Endangered African language explored”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 23, 2013. Available online:

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