Archive for Monday, September 14, 1992


September 14, 1992


With about 1,900 languages spoken within its countries, Africa can dazzle linguists.

Fiona McLaughlin, Kansas University linguist, calls Africa "a linguistic gold mine."

McLaughlin has a Fulbright Lecturing Award for 1992-93 to teach linguistics at the University of Niamey in Niger. When she leaves for Niger in October, McLaughlin will make her third trip to Africa as a linguist.

"Until linguists began to explore less-studied languages, most research in theoretical linguistics was based on European languages," McLaughlin says.

"Recent studies of African languages have modified earlier theories and helped shape theoretical linguistics," she says.

"THE CURRENT understanding of how tone behaves in language, for example, is due largely to research of African languages that are tonal," McLaughlin says. In tone languages, a word's meaning depends partially on vocal pitch.

Among Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal.

"Most Africans speak at least two African languages. There is a lot of interest in Africa to promote the use of African languages in education and publishing, but it is extremely controversial," McLaughlin says.

Africans are split on whether the use of European languages in education and publishing is helpful to their nations' development.

In Niger, for example, French is the official language, although only a minority of Niger's population speaks French. McLaughlin will teach classes in French to linguistics students of African languages.

LANGUAGES spoken in Niger include Songhai, the language of a medieval empire of the same name, and Hausa, widely used in West Africa. Fula, a language with six major dialects, used primarily by nomadic cattle herders in sub-Saharan Africa, is also prevalent.

McLaughlin is among the few scholars of Fula, a language with 21 noun classes, compared with three in German masculine, feminine and neuter or almost none in English. For her dissertation study of three African languages, McLaughlin worked with the westernmost dialect of Fula. In Niamey, she will work with the language's easternmost dialect.

Morphology, or word structure, and the structure of narrative, or any recounting of an event, are McLaughlin's research interests. Fula-speaking peoples make unusual use of narratives in their oral histories.

GENEALOGIES are recited in verse and an elaborate, stylized performance.

"It is a type of verbal art with no equivalent in European or American cultures. Western countries' maintenance of folk culture and folk tales is the closest example, but it is not comparable to the oral traditions of these peoples," McLaughlin says.

"Because cattle are central to the existence of Fula-speaking peoples, they can trace the genealogies not only of their own families, but also of the cattle kept by those families the ownership and husbandry," McLaughlin says.

McLaughlin made her first academic visit to Africa in 1986 and a second in 1988, to complete her dissertation in Senegal, with a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. She also received a Fulbright award in 1980 to study in then West Berlin.

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