New survey of word order in Nguni languages
Eva-Marie Bloom Ström has been awarded a three-year research grant from the Swedish Research Council, to study the Nguni languages in South Africa. Her work includes interviews with people whose native language is Zulu or Xhosa.
The project titled “How do words get in order? the role of speaker-hearer interaction in languages of South Africa” focuses on Nguni languages, a subgroup of Bantu languages in South Africa. This subgroup includes for example Zulu and Xhosa.
“The Nguni languages are structurally very similar, in the way that our Scandinavian languages are. Xhosa is Nelson Mandela’s language, and it is spoken by nine million South Africans. In other words, it is about as big as the Swedish language. Still, there is a lot less linguistic research concerning Xhosa compared to Swedish – even though Xhosa is one of South Africa’s eleven official languages”, says Eva-Marie Bloom Ström, a researcher at the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science.
Therefore, our knowledge of the structure of the Bantu languages is considerably more limited than that of the European languages. The current research project is intended to contribute to building the research base, eventually leading to better grammatical descriptions, feeding into better grammar books needed in schools around the country. The standardized Xhosa variety taught in schools appears old-fashioned, and according to many, it doesn’t correlate with the language as currently spoken at home.
A matter of equity
“Grammar research is basic research which can also lead to better translations, something that is important in a society where a lot of the information is only presented in English, an old colonial language. Moreover, existing translations are often filled with errors. In a democratic, inclusive society everyone should be able to access information no matter their native language”, says Eva-Marie Bloom Ström.
Further, modern language technology is based on grammatical descriptions. This is perhaps not something that comes to mind when talking about grammar, but it is important from a societal and equality perspective, she continues.
The research grant is approximately five million SEK.
“I’m very happy about the grant”, says Eva-Marie Bloom Ström. It also came as a nice surprise, because the grant was awarded afterwards for an application submitted last year.
Many hours of field work
Eva-Marie Bloom Ström works with descriptive language research, which means her research is built on interviews with speakers of the language. She interviews people, records the interviews, and analyses the word order of the spoken language. “It is a time-consuming method. It is important, however, because the research questions cannot be answered only by using already existing sources. In addition, intonation plays an important part together with the word order, and the research therefore needs to be based on naturally recorded material”, she says.
All communication between the speaker and the listener is an interaction, where the speaker doesn’t have to say “everything”. He or she can assume some commonly shared knowledge and new information can be introduced in the conversation.
“For example, when the speaker says, ‘my bike is broken’; a following related noun can be in the definitive form: ‘the frame was old anyways’. The listener knows that this refers to the frame of the broken bike. Every language uses specific grammatical constructions for this. For example, in the Bantu language family there are no articles to express definiteness. Preliminary research shows that word order has a role to play in indicating what is already known and what is new information.”
As part of this, Eva-Marie Bloom Ström will also describe how the truth of a statement is highlighted in a Bantu language, something that hasn’t been researched before.
“In English this is done by inserting DO and through accent ”The horse DID kick the dog”, where it is assumed that someone has questioned the statement. Bantu languages do not use accent for this kind of emphasis, in contrast with languages which have up until now dominated the semantic and pragmatic research. It is important in a cross-linguistic perspective to include data from as many different kinds of language as possible.”
Looking forward to traveling
Eva-Marie Bloom Ström can hopefully spend research time in South Africa soon again. Moreover, she still has plenty of material from earlier research which she can analyze. In the new project she will be working together with two researchers, from Finland and South Africa, who work with similar research questions.
In addition, she can hire an assistant that speaks a Nguni language, for example a linguistics student, and in this way contribute to capacity building so that the research field will have more native Nguni speakers in the future.
“It is important that we have knowledge of the concepts which underlie word order and grammatical structures, and that this knowledge is not only based on western languages.”
Written by Monica Havström
Earlier research project:
Eva-Marie Bloom Ström is teaching in Phonetics and phonology, Swahili and African languages.