Patricia Yollin of the San Francisco Chronicle has a great story, “UC linguistics students get lesson of lifetime,” describing an unusual Field Methods class. A similar class was one of the highlights of my own linguistics education: we met every week to elicit forms from a speaker of Toba Batak (a language of Sumatra), and each had to produce a grammar by the end of the semester; we were not supposed to use English with our informant, although sometimes we slipped up. The difference here is that the language has never been described by linguists (except for a word list):
Nzadi is one of the most obscure tongues in the world. That’s exactly why a UC Berkeley class has embraced it.
“There’s nothing like the joy of discovering a language from scratch,” said Cal linguistics Professor Larry Hyman.
The 10 students in his course, Introduction to Field Methods, are focusing on Nzadi this semester – the first such effort in any college or university to examine this remote member of the Bantu linguistic family.
“It’s a chance to study a language that nobody has studied before,” said graduate student researcher Thera Crane. “That opportunity does not come around very often.”
Nzadi is spoken by thousands of people in fishing villages along the Kasai River in Congo, a country with about 220 languages.
The students in Hyman’s class have two goals. They want to figure out how to analyze an unfamiliar language and they plan to document Nzadi – a tongue so unknown that it cannot be found in the Ethnologue, a compendium of almost 7,000 languages across the globe….
Hyman also would like to produce a grammar by the end of the semester that could be published. Each student would be responsible for a chapter.
You can watch a minute-long YouTube clip with snippets of the class and talks with the professor and the informant; read the story for more (the informant, Simon Nsielanga Tukumu, “grew up in the Congolese village of Bundu in a family of fishermen,” has been ordained as a Jesuit priest, and “is now working toward a master’s degree in ethics at the Graduate Theological Union”). I will seize this opportunity to once more propagandize for the old-fashioned kind of linguistic training that emphasized intensive study of non-Indo-European languages as a necessary part of a linguist’s background. Thanks for the link, Eve! (Incidentally, Prof. Hyman founded the Comparative Bantu On-Line Dictionary (CBOLD), a very useful project.)