With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Russell G. Schuh and his colleague Dr. Alhaji Maina Gimba of the University of Maiduguri, Nigeria, will spend three years documenting five languages of Yobe State, Nigeria. These are Bole, Karekare, Ngamo, Bade, and Ngizim, all major languages of the Chadic family. None of these languages has yet been described comprehensively in full grammars or dictionaries; nor is any used in written form by its speakers. Drs. Schuh and Gimba will train teams of native speakers to collect and transcribe data in their own languages. The teams will begin by building on existing lexical databases and collections of texts. Databases currently range from 700-800 words for Ngamo to over 3000 words for Bole. Researchers will work toward relatively large dictionaries of several thousand items per language. Texts currently emphasize folktales. Researchers will collect new texts, including oral history, descriptions of customs and traditions, poetry and song, and personal narrative. One source of new texts will be transcription of audio and video recordings of people recognized as being particularly knowledgable or skilled in various domains. One goal of the project will be to stimulate speakers to write in their native languages. To this end, the project will solicit texts in written form from people already literate in Hausa (the lingua franca of Northern Nigeria), particularly secondary school students. As collections of texts increase, they will be published locally so that people can see themselves in print. Ultimately the project will produce sizable dictionaries for each language in both paper and electronic form (CD and searchable web databases) and collections of texts both for local distribution and, with translations, in both paper and electronic form for an audience outside Nigeria. Not least, a long-term outcome, extending beyond the duration of the project, should be continued self-documentation of the languages in written form.
This language documentation project is significant in four ways. First, it emphasizes linguistic structure that is encoded in the lexicon. This includes derivational processes that make nouns from verbs, make verbs passive, or create nouns indicating agent or instrument; inflectional processes that indicate gender, number, tense, or (in)definiteness; compounding creating word combinations whose overall meaning is not predictable from the parts. Second, the project's documenting of a group of related languages reveals language history. The lexicons of these languages tell us, for example, which words can be reconstructed as having been shared by the original ancestor language, how words may have shifted in meaning in individual languages, and which words have been adopted from other languages. Third, the lexicon is also a repository of ethnoecology. It includes names for flora, fauna, and natural objects, and means of constructing names for things in the environment (compounding, word derivation, etc.). Finally, the lexicon represents all aspects of culture, including words from the entire range of crafts, occupations, traditions, and social organization. The text collections are especially critical to the study of historical and cultural changes. All these issues require detailed documentation and input from natives of the culture, which this project will provide.