Nyang'i is a nearly extinct Kuliak language spoken in northeastern Uganda. The Kuliak languages have attracted the attention of linguists since the 1970s due to the light they shed on East African prehistory and to their typologically unique features. Nevertheless, Nyang'i remains almost entirely undescribed and undocumented. Nyang'i is no longer used as a language of everyday communication, and was once believed to be extinct; however, a small number of semi-speakers of Nyang'i have been located in recent years, only one of whom is able to fluently produce narrative texts. These semi-speakers represent the last opportunity to supplement our currently limited understanding of the Nyang'i language.

Primary data collected by this project will consist of a large transcribed and annotated corpus of video and audio recorded speech in Nyang'i. This corpus will be used to prepare descriptive materials including a grammar and an English-Karamojong-Nyang'i dictionary. The descriptive materials will include particular emphasis on typological features that remain understudied in East African languages at large such as tone, vowel harmony, case marking, and the grammatical indication of motion, location, and direction. This project will support the scientific training of a rising early-career scholar.

Project Report

Nyang’i is an underdocumented and underdescribed language once spoken in northeastern Uganda. The NSF-funded project A Grammar of Nyang’i with Historical-Comparative Notes has provided a grammatical description of the last remaining form of the language, the idiolect of the final member of the Nyang’i community who is able to create sentences in Nyang’i. The grammar of this idiolect has undergone considerable simplification, a common process among dying languages that is referred to in the literature as "structural consequences of language death." This study provides not only description of the simplified language variety as it exists today in the mind of its last rememberer, but also a historical account of the pressures that have contributed to its simplification—an account that provides a valuable benchmark case study of the structural consequences of language death. Materials collected for the study include 20 single-speaker texts from multiple genres, totaling about 40 minutes in duration and including grammatical analysis, a database of about 1,200 words, including translations in English and the Napore dialect of Karamojong, example sentences illustrating about 400 of these words, three traditional songs, and a collection of culturally significant place names. These materials, and the grammatical and lexical descriptions prepared using them, will be compared to existing descriptive materials for other languages in the area—both to those believed to have descended from a common linguistic ancestor (the Kuliak languages) and to those that are not believed to have descended from a common linguistic ancestor, but which have had sufficiently close contact with Nyang’i to bring about lexical or grammatical changes (including languages from multiple branches of the Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic language families). Comparison with related languages will facilitate the reconstruction of a hypothetical "fuller" form of Nyang’i, and comparison with unrelated contact languages will allow distinction to be made between changes that resulted from contact from changes that are more properly structural consequences of language death unmotivated by linguistic pressures external to Nyang’i. In addition to the benefits for scholars in various fields (including historical linguistics, east African languages, and language death), this project preserves a durable record of what remains of the Nyang’i language. While a full revitalization project resulting in the restoration of Nyang’i as a language of daily use is no longer feasible, this record will enable the Nyang’i community to access important cultural words and concepts in the Nyang’i language. These words and concepts may serve as important tools for marking shared identity as members of the Nyang’i community, which is still an important component of the identity of many in the Nyang’i homeland. Salvage fieldwork in Nyang’i has provided a database of grammatical and lexical data that will be of interest to a variety of disciplines. For the field of historical linguistics, this data will provide new insight into the internal structure of the Robic language family and into contact influences from other languages. For the field of language death, this data provides a rare case study of a language at the final stages of gradual language shift. The data will provide further insight into the question of what is lost and what is retained in the context of language shift. Using methodology from the field of comparative linguistics, the proposed dissertation will, in addition to providing as comprehensive a description of the last Nyang’i idiolect as possible, provide a benchmark study of a language death situation that, it is hoped, will be useful for historical linguists, scholars of language death, and members of the Nyang’i community alike.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Shobhana Chelliah
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University of Colorado at Boulder
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