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Students Document a Disappearing Language

  • Kerry Grens

In the highlands of southwest Kenya, about a million and a half people speak an unwritten language called Kisii. Halfway around the world from the coffee and maize farms of Kisii district, students at the University of New Hampshire are developing a rulebook for the language. They have only the help of one transplanted native speaker. And he's learning just as much about Kisii as they are.

In a typical session, seven linguistics students gather around Henry Gekonde and pepper him with questions. "Can you say that it's 'not red' in Kisii?" asks one. "Yeah," he responds, "You can say yaya teri mbariri. Yaya means no."

Gekonde grew up in Kenya, speaking Kisii at home. The students are trying to learn as much as they can from him about his native tongue. Over the past several months, they have developed a keen ear for a language that none of them had ever heard before. They transcribe Gekonde's answers using the International Phonetic Alphabet, just about as quickly as he speaks. Today, they are trying to understand how to say "not" in Kisii.

Aside from a translation of the Bible and a few children's books, the class has been unable to find anything written in Kisii.

The purpose of this linguistics course is to teach students how to document a largely unknown language. And with the semester coming to a close, the students have made considerable progress. They started with simply collecting the sounds Kisii uses, and translating vocabulary. Now they've got the basic sentence structure down. It is the same as English: subject, verb, direct object.

But Adam Jardine says he and his classmates have also uncovered some bewildering differences. "It's kind of like in French and Spanish where there's a masculine/feminine distinction. In Kisii, there (are) 8 of those distinctions. So depending on what type of noun a word is, all these different things in the sentence change."

Another difference is that Kisii does not have the verb "to be". It does, however, have many different past tenses.

All of these complexities were also somewhat of a surprise to Henry Gekonde, who admits he didn't really analyze his language until now. "Even the way it works -- the tenses, the noun system and all that -- I never thought about that. I'm uncovering things about Kisii that I didn't know before. And for some of the questions that the students ask me, I don't really have an answer." He says it's very exciting. "We're figuring it out together."

Gekonde never learned about Kisii grammar. Kenyan schools teach only the country's dominant languages, Swahili and English. "It's a dying language anyway, not that many people speak it," he says, adding, "it's not used in academic research or work or writing, so what's the point of studying it?"

To preserve it, according to linguistics professor Naomi Nagy, who teaches this class. There are very few texts that describe anything of Kisii grammar, she says, adding that even though Kisii is not included on the endangered list, hundreds of unwritten languages are at risk of going extinct within the next hundred years. "I think that a really important step for people who are trying to preserve endangered languages is to get the speakers of those languages to realize that their language is just as good."

So Professor Nagy asked Henry Gekonde to be the subject of her language documentation class. He says he was happy to do it. He sees Kisii eroding among the younger generation in Kenya, and being replaced by English. Gekonde's hope is that documenting Kisii will help keep his native language alive… and with it, the Kisii way of interpreting the world. "You have computers and cars and things like that. That makes you view the world in a different way," he explains. "We have bananas and maize and walks to the market on foot, lots of rain, and we have words that describe that lifestyle that people lead, and that's the way we view the world. That's really what distinguishes us from people who speak other languages."

Henry Gekonde says he's determined to preserve those distinctions. Although he came to the University of New Hampshire as a linguistics graduate student to study English, he now plans to return to Kenya to develop the first Kisii dictionary.

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