two-year language study

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Thu Jun 29 05:17:42 UTC 2006
UCSD grad students end two-year language study

By Sarah Gordon
June 27, 2006
At UCSD, a group of linguistics graduate students recently wrapped up  
a two-year investigation of an esoteric language few others had  
studied: Moro, one of dozens of tribal tongues spoken in the Nuba  
Mountains of Central Sudan.

NANCEE E. LEWIS / Union-Tribune
Elyasir Julima of Sudan listened to a question about his native  
language, Moro, during a UCSD linguistics class earlier this month.  
Julima attended the class twice a week to help graduate students  
studying the dying language.
Twice a week, Elyasir Julima, a Sudanese refugee living in City  
Heights, came to class and spoke while students toiled to develop a  
description of Moro's tone system and grammar.

Linguists say there may be more than 6,500 languages spoken around  
the world.

So why spend two years on Moro?

“It trains them to work on any language they haven't encountered,”  
said UCSD's associate professor of linguistics, Sharon Rose, who co- 
taught the field methods class.

Besides, evidence indicates that Moro may be endangered.

Students in the class think that would be a shame.

“The language contains a lot of information about the area, the  
culture, its history,” student George Gibbard said.

In Moro, for example, the word for “farmer” is the same as the  
word for “man.” In the Nuba Mountains, agriculture is so  
pervasive, almost every man is also a farmer.

NANCEE E. LEWIS / Union-Tribune
George Gibbard, a UCSD graduate student, wrote sentences in Moro as  
part of his class' study on the language, spoken in Central Sudan.
Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It can be a highly  
theoretical field, and a minority of linguistics graduate programs in  
the country require hands-on courses in documenting and unraveling  
little-studied languages. However, the UCSD-required class has been  
an essential part of the school's program for decades.

The skills to decode rare, endangered and minority languages are of  
increasing importance to linguists, say academics in the field.

The reasons are twofold. For one, linguists want to build databases  
that take advantage of modern computing's power to run complex  
language comparisons.

“Since linguists are always trying to figure out the relationship  
between language and the mind, every bit of evidence we have gives us  
information,” said Farrell Ackerman, a professor who co-taught the  
field methods class with Rose. “If we only documented English, we'd  
have a very peculiar view of this relationship.”

Linguists also want to document languages before it's too late.  
Increasing globalization and industrialization make many languages  
vulnerable to obsolescence.

Rose says tribal speech can die within a couple of generations once  
speakers come in contact with a tongue from a more dominant and  
economically powerful group.

The status of Moro is unknown because civil war in Sudan has kept  
linguists away for decades. But Rose says evidence suggests that it  
is threatened. Arabic is Sudan's government-endorsed language in  
schools and trade, and villages where Moro used to thrive have been  
torn apart by war.


With its speakers dead or dispersed, the language might easily die  
too, Rose says.
The UCSD class has a history of helping to revitalize threatened  
languages close to home: those of American Indians.
Longtime faculty member Margaret Langdon, who died last year, devoted  
her career to helping the Kumeyaay band of American Indians document  
and teach young people their traditionally oral language.
Over the years, she inspired many graduate students at UCSD. One  
wrote a three-volume dictionary of Luiseño. Another organizes a  
yearly collaborative conference between American Indians and  
linguists at UC Berkeley.
Still, even Langdon doubted that little-used languages could ever be  
completely restored.
“She was always of the opinion that no matter what they did, it was  
probably a losing battle,” Rose said.
Ackerman and Rose nonetheless hope their work will eventually enrich  
Moro-speaking communities in Sudan.
They plan to apply for a grant to continue studying the language and  
would ultimately like to produce learning materials in Moro, like  
children's books or a dictionary.
“Whatever the research we do should also have a practical benefit  
for the community,” Ackerman said.
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