The goal of this research project is to deepen our understanding of the range of possible phonological systems across human languages by documenting and analyzing the understudied phonology of the Betsimisaraka dialects of Malagasy, spoken on the East coast of Madagascar. This project consists of at least six months' fieldwork on Northern Betsimisaraka with the aim of producing a complete phonological analysis of the dialect.

Careful observations of native, monolingual speakers' articulations and acoustic measurements will be used to answer basic questions regarding the language's sound inventories. Systematic variations in pronunciation will be documented and analyzed, with special attention paid to processes known to occur in the Standard dialect of Malagasy. All data collected during elicitation sessions will be entered into a database and later archived following E-Meld's school of best practices. In addition to theoretically neutral descriptions of the phonology, analyses will be provided in both rule-based and constraint-based theoretical frameworks. Xerox's Finite State Transducer software will assist in the construction of these analyses, resulting in scripts that offer complete models of the language's phonology.

It should be noted that Northern Betsimisaraka, though usually referred to as a dialect, may even constitute a language itself, based on recent studies on the mutual intelligibility of Malagasy speech varieties. The data and phonological analysis from this project could be used to help determine the Madagascar's exact dialectology.

Sound files, digital photos, and videos, will be made publicly available to those who wish to do further phonological studies on the language, as well as to cultural institutions in Madagascar. Sound and video files will largely consist of local stories and conversations, granting them applications outside of phonology, from linguists wishing to investigate Betsimisaraka sentence structure to those researchers outside linguistics with interests in anthropology and other cultural studies.

Project Report

This research provided for the study of Betsimarka Malagasy, an understudied language variety spoken in Madagascar, which is the world's fourth largest island, and is located just across the Mozambique channel from the African continent. Uniquely for Africa, the culture there has a strong Austronesian element, along with the expected Bantu contribution. The language varieties spoken by the people living there do have a large number of Bantu borrowings, but most of the vocabulary and grammar are most closely related instead to Indonesian dialects far on the other side of the Indian Ocean. Recent research about the varieties spoken in Madagascar suggest, though, that they may be best described as separate languages, which is to say that they are not always mutually comprehensible. The second most-spoken of these varieties is used by the million-strong Betsimisaraka ethnic group, who live almost entirely up and down the coast of the island. It is this group's speech that formed the object of research. Each world language has a distinct inventory of sounds and a set of laws that govern the speech environments in which those sounds appear. Together, the sounds and laws are known as the language's phonology, and our knowledge of the nature of human grammars increases with each additional study of a language's phonology. Prior to the onset of this study, the phonology of Betsimisaraka was almost entirely undescribed by theoretical linguists. The co-PI spent several months in Vavatenina, Madagascar collecting speech data and analyzing the Betsimisaraka variety. Armed with knowledge about what had previously been written on Official Malagasy (OM), the co-PI constructed linguistic tasks (from simple identification of indicated objects to more complex conjugation and compounding tasks) for native speakers of Betsimisaraka that would reveal the sounds and laws of their language. After one five-month stay in the Betsimisaraka region, the co-PI returned home to spend a semester in consultation with the PI on what he had found and how he had analyzed it, then returned to the island for a more tightly focused 70-day stay to finalize his findings. After two trips, he had enough data to write a full phonological grammar of the language, and an analysis that included a full list of the sounds of the language (including two more than are found in OM) and a description of the phonological laws of Betsimisaraka. Several processes were encountered that distinguished Betsimisaraka from OM, including three separate vowel-harmony processes (wherein a vowel must match a previous vowel in the same word). The three most fascinating and disparate processes the co-PI discovered were organized into academic presentations that were presented at three conferences on three continents to inform both the theoretical linguist community and Malagasy linguists. Finally, the full phonological grammar, which will constitute the co-PI's doctoral dissertation, increases our understanding of phonology as a field. If it becomes accepted that Betsimisaraka is indeed a separate language from OM, especially by influential Malagasy linguists, then this could change the language policy on the island, with consequences for education and hiring practices.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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William J. Badecker
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University of Delaware
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