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Helping to create a written record helps save a language from extinction

Henry Gekonde '06G is talking about bananas. His listeners, students in the spring linguistic field methods class, lean forward with rapt attention. When he starts talking about big bananas and little bananas, one banana vs. two bananas, they scribble furiously. They ask him to repeat himself, again and again. They strain to distinguish minute variations in pronunciation, debate among themselves about whose spelling is right. It goes on like this, day after day, in an endless untangling of unfamiliar sounds and sentence structures.

Gekonde is speaking in Kisii (or Gusii), one of more than 30 languages spoken in his homeland of Kenya. It is the language of his childhood, still used by about 1 million people. But the words of this ancient tongue have never been formally recorded. There is no "right" spelling, no reference book to double check. There are only Kisii speakers and their voices: grandmothers preparing dinner with a "big knife," omoijo omonene; mothers washing in a "big river," oroche oronene; children pointing to a "big fish," enswe enene.

Naomi Nagy's field methods class is trying to help change history. They are trying to create a systematic written record of a language that is dying out even as it is being recorded for the first time. These days, Swahili and English are the dominant languages in Kenya, used in politics and business and taught in the schools. With the pressures of modernization, Kisii doesn't stand a chance.

A journalist and graduate student in linguistics, Gekonde has been in the United States for a decade. He hopes to return someday to Kenya and write a dictionary of Kisii, helping to preserve at least a small piece of a rich culture. It's a culture the UNH linguistics students know very little about. But that, says Nagy, is part of the point. "You're an explorer in a very foreign land," she says, describing what it's like to encounter an undocumented language. "You're starting with nothing. Even for students who know French or Spanish, it's a real eye-opener."

Take your basic noun, for example. English has one category of nouns. German has three. Kisii, on the other hand, has eight. Want to describe one of those eight types of nouns? You'll need to choose from among eight corresponding types of adjectives. Describing big knives, for example, requires a different "big" than would be used to describe just one jumbo knife. Changes in tense are indicated simply by subtle changes in voice inflection, which tend to be very difficult for non-native speakers to decipher. In other instances, Kisii has simplified the options: There are no pronouns, for example, to distinguish male from female.

From the start, the field methods course can be a mind-blowing experience for many students. On the first day of class, Nagy asks the students to list every language they can think of. Usually, the group manages to come up with two or three dozen. Then she wows them with the truth: The world is home to 6,000 languages; 4,000 of them, like Kisii, are undocumented, and most are also considered "endangered." Some linguists predict that 90 percent of the world's languages will be extinct within 100 years or so. Suddenly, the effort to accurately record "big banana" in Kisii takes on an unexpected urgency. "I think we were all really focused on trying to get it right," says Matt Connors '08, "because, working with Henry, we knew it might turn into something."

Typically, Nagy must approximate the experience of encountering an undocumented language by bringing in a graduate student who speaks an unfamiliar, non-European language. "We've done Nepalese, Mongolian and Parisian Lebanese Arabic," says the professor of linguistics, ticking off a few examples from the recent past. But this semester, the class has the real thing. They have Gekonde. And he has a vision. Someday, when he writes that dictionary, the grammar handbook created by students in a linguistics course in Durham, N.H., will be at his side, a reminder that, even as English and the rest of the world's dominant languages are sweeping the globe, there are a handful of students who share his passion for the mysterious music of a tribal tongue.

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