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MU Researcher Receives $330,000 National Science Foundation Grant to Study African Languages

June 11th, 2014

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Many languages spoken in Africa do not have a written tradition, and relatively few are well documented. In rural western Kenya, the oral traditions of several distinct varieties of Luyia, a cluster of Bantu languages of Kenya and Uganda, remain largely unstudied. With increasing pressure from the more widespread languages of Swahili and English, there are potential threats to the longevity of these languages. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have received a four-year $330,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to investigate these under-studied languages and document their linguistic properties.

“We will be investigating the complexity and richness of four varieties of Luyia: Bukusu, Logoori, Tiriki and Wanga,” said Michael Marlo, assistant professor of English in the College of Arts and Science at MU. “We will study these four closely related languages that are spoken near to each another, but have striking linguistic differences. In addition, this kind of study also reinforces the value of the language among its speakers, which is especially important for young people since they are the future of each language.”

Marlo will work with co-principal investigator Vicki Carstens, professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; Michael Diercks, assistant professor at Pomona College; Kristopher Ebarb, who will be a post-doctoral researcher at Mizzou; Christopher Green, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland; David Odden, professor emeritus at The Ohio State University; and Mary Paster, associate professor at Pomona College. This collaboration will allow specialists in syntax (sentence structure) and specialists in phonology (sound systems) to study each of the four Luyia varieties.

“This is the largest grant ever for the department,” said David Read, chair of the English department at MU. “In fact, NSF grants are hardly ever housed in English departments making this award especially impressive and exciting.”

The team will review the preliminary information they have already collected and move forward with analysis and field work. For some, this will require traveling to Kenya to conduct interviews with native speakers. The Luyia communities are located in a remote portion of western Kenya, which is more than an eight hour drive by bus from Nairobi.

During the project, the team will produce several detailed reports on each language, including a grammatical outline, in-depth studies of the tonal system and sentence structure, a collection of texts, and a dictionary. Most of the materials collected as part of the project will be made available online for free, including oral histories, folk tales, songs and other cultural recordings.

“We’re really thrilled that this grant is going to support our work and will allow us to do what we envision,” Marlo said. “I believe this is a good model to use for language documentation and description; the methodology is replicable.”

Marlo’s study, “Collaborative research: structure and tone in Luyia,” is funded through a grant from the NSF’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences.

Editor’s Note: For a longer version of this story, please see: “Michael Marlo Receives NSF Grant to Research Four Under-documented Varieties of Luyia.”