UNH Students Preserve Kenyan Language

A Kenyan student in University of New Hampshire to develop the first Kisii dictionary.

Reported by Kerry Grens

Here in New Hampshire we often hear about discoveries at the University of New Hampshire that could change the world.

Those stories are often about research done in high tech labs with all the latest equipment.

But a group of UNH linguistics students have started a project that may end up saving a language and a culture thousands of miles away.

Their equipment?

Seven pens one man.

In the tropical highlands of southwest Kenya, about a million and a half people speak a language called Kisii.

It’s an unwritten language.

It has no dictionary, no grammar books, no alphabet.

Until now.

…classroom sounds…

In a classroom at UNH, seven linguistics students gather around Henry Gekonde and pepper him with questions. He grew up in Kenya, speaking Kisii at home.

The students are trying to learn as much as they can from Gekonde about his native tongue.

…bring up class sounds…

Over the past several months the students have developed a keen ear for a language that had never heard before.

They transcribe Gekonde’s answers using the International Phonetic Alphabet, just about as fast as Gekonde speaks.

On this day they are trying to understand how to say “not” in Kisii.

…bring up class sounds…

By the end of the semester they plan to have developed the language’s first grammar book.

(bring up sound…and out)

The purpose of this linguistics course is to teach students how to document a unknown language.

Nagy: Usually it’s just kind of a practice class.

Every year, Professor Naomi Nagy invites in a speaker who knows a language the students don’t.

In the past, she’s been able to find only speakers of written languages.

But this year, students don’t have the option of looking up the answers in a textbook.

Nagy: It’s a tough class for the students because they have to figure everthing out for themselves.

It’s not a lecture class. We talk at the beginning about different methods of going about figuring out this kind of information and different techniques and they look at other grammars that have been written.

But it’s a trial and error thing for them.

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 there are also some bewildering differences the students have uncovered.

Student Adam Jardine.

Jardine: It's kind of like in French and Spanish where there's a masculine/feminine distinction.

In Kisii there's eight 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.

The challenge can be to find complexities in Kisii that don’t exist in English.

That's because the students don't know what to ask.

Professor Nagy recounted the story of how a student figured out the importance of location in Kisii.

Nagy: He asked Henry, how would you say I’d like to buy a banana? And Henry said, where is the banana?

And the student just looked at him like, why does that matter?

It turns out that the way you say I’d like to buy this banana depends on whether it’s right next to you, or across the room from you, or if you’re holding it, or if the person you’re talking to is holding it. And there’s just so many combinations and all of those would be the same sentence in English.

All of these complexities were also somewhat of a surprise to Henry Gekonde.

Gekonde: We had materials, when I was growing up, but I didn’t really analyze the language until now.

And even the way it works—the tenses, the noun system and all that—I never thought about that.

And he never learned about it.

In Kenya, schools teach the dominant languages, Swahili and English.

When Gekonde enrolled as a linguistics graduate student at UNH, he enrolled to study English, not Kisii.

Now, he’s found a surprising overlap between the two languages.

During his discussions with the students, Gekonde’s uncovered many words he thought were Kisii but are instead borrowed from English.

For example, colors.

Gekonde can think of only three true Kisii words for different colors.

Gekonde: Black—emuamu. If you are saying the car is black …Kisii… Red, we have that one. …Kisii… White, this house is white. …Kisii… Those are three ones I know of, but when we come to blue, yellow, orange, all the other ones are borrowed either from English or Swahili.

And English continues to creep into Kisii, and seems to devour sentences word by word.

Among the younger generation, English words get tacked on to the ends of Kisii sentences.

Gekonde: If I say for ex, a radio is on the table. …let me have the radio that is on the table… But if I were talking to my friend, I’ll say, …on the table.

Gekonde’s hope is that documenting Kisii will help keep his native language alive.

And with it, the Kisii way of interpreting the world.

Gekonde: You have computers and cars and things like that--that makes you view the world in a different way.

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.

Gekonde says he’s determined to preserve those distinctions.

He plans to return to Kenya to develop the first Kisii dictionary.

Students Preserve Kenyan Language story by NPR

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