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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Preserving African Language and Culture

LLL Professor Christopher Green receives prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship.

Aug. 11, 2021, by Dan Bernardi

Christopher Green
Christopher Green

The proliferation of politically powerful languages like English and Hausa in African countries like Nigeria has come to threaten many of the over 500 languages spoken throughout the country. Christopher Green, assistant professor of linguistics, seeks to describe and document some of those languages that appear on their way to endangerment.

Green is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Dynamic Language Infrastructure Documenting Endangered Languages fellowship for his project, “Documentation and description of Jarawan languages.”

Jarawan languages are a small group of approximately 20 to 25 languages spoken in Nigeria and Cameroon that Green says are essentially undescribed and undocumented. While his past research has mainly focused on other language groups in Africa, including Mande, Cushitic, and Bantu, he was introduced to Jarawan languages when former graduate student, Milkatu Garba G'20, joined the linguistic studies program in 2018. Garba is from Nigeria and a native speaker of a Jarawan language called Mbat.

Since 2018, Green and Garba have collaborated on this research, and the new NEH grant will allow their team to analyze materials that they continue to collect on Mbat, with the goal of publishing a sketch of its grammar with an accompanying lexicon. They will also begin data collection on two other Jarawan languages, Duguri and Galamkya, in order to better understand the similarities between each of these languages. The data they generate will also help them to better understand how Jarawan languages relate to Narrow Bantu and Southern Bantoid, which are two major African language groups.

Thanks to NEH funds and additional funds from Syracuse University’s SOURCE, Green will work closely with several current and former SU students to provide them with the opportunity to do practical and hands on linguistic research. Members of the project team include Soyoung Kim G'20, Will Hagerman G'21, Peyton Cameron ' 22, who is dual majoring in linguistic studies and international relations, and Milkatu Garba G'20.

Green says that he hopes his research will curb the decline in the number of speakers of these languages, a matter of great concern to the Tadnum Traditional Council in Bauchi State, Nigeria, who have endorsed Green's work. “We are working to preserve the languages of the Jarawan people in the face of an evolving and globalizing world,” he says. “This fellowship will help to carry on their rich cultural heritage.”