New Hampshire Students Bid to Save Kenyan Tongue

A Kenyan scholar is on a quest to preserve his unwritten native language, Kisii. As Kerry Grens of New Hampshire Public Radio reports, he's getting help from from fellow students at the University of New Hampshire.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. In the highlands of southwest Kenya, about a million-and-a-half people speak an unwritten language called Kisii. Halfway around the world from the coffee and maze farms of the Kisii district at the University of New Hampshire, students are developing the first ever rule book for the Kisii language. They have only the help of one transplanted native speaker, and he's learning just as much about Kisii as they are. New Hampshire Public Radio's Kerry Grens reports.

KERRY GRENS reporting:

Today is negation day. The class works out how to say something wasn't, isn't, didn't or won't. Seven linguistics majors arrange themselves in a loose circle around native Kisii speaker Henry Gekonde and press him for data.

Unidentified Male #1: Can you say that it's not red in Kisii?

Mr. HENRY GEKONDE (Native Kisii Speaker): Yeah, you could say (foreign language spoken).

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. GEKONDE: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Male #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. GEKONDE: Yaya(ph), it means no.

Unidentified Woman #1: No, right, and then?

Mr. GEKONDE: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. GEKONDE: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GRENS: The students scribble down their transcriptions using the international phonetic alphabet. After class, Henry Gekonde takes a break outside.

Mr. GEKONDE: Today, this is typical Kisii weather.

GRENS: But it's unseasonably warm for New Hampshire. A decade ago, he left the rural village of Bomasisi(ph) and the tea farm where he grew up to earn a journalism degree at Indiana University. He then became a copy editor for a paper in southern New Hampshire. Last year, he began a Master's Degree in the linguistics department at the UNH, but to study English, not Kisii.

Mr. GEKONDE: I didn't think that anybody would be interest in Kisii.

GRENS: It's not a written language. In schools, English and Swahili dominate. Gekonde says many people back home told him studying the language was not worthwhile.

Mr. GEKONDE: It's a dying language anyway. Not that many people speak it. It's not used in academic research or work or writing, so what's the point of studying it?

GRENS: To preserve it, says linguistics professor Naomi Nagy. Kisii's not included on the endangered list, but hundreds of unwritten languages are at risk of going extinct in the next century.

Professor NAOMI NAGY (University of New Hampshire): It think that's a really important step for people who are interested in trying to preserve endangered languages, is to get the speakers of those language to realize that their language is just as good.

GRENS: So Professor Nagy asked Henry Gekonde to be the subject of her language documentation class.

Mr. GEKONDE: I'm uncovering things about Kisii that I didn't know before. It's very, very exciting, and for some of the questions the students ask me, I don't really have an answer. We're figuring it out together.

GRENS: Like, for instance, that there's no to be verb in Kisii. There's an elaborate tense system for actions but no word for purple. One of the most thrilling discoveries for student Adam Jardine(ph) was uncovering Kisii's different noun classes.

Mr. ADAM JARDINE (Linguistic Student): It's kind of like in French and Spanish where there's a masculine-feminine distinction. In Kisii, there's eight of those distinctions.

GRENS: Gekonde's excited by the progress. The class has steered his career toward the pursuit of developing a Kisii dictionary, and it's earned him a better understanding of how the language shapes Kisii identity.

Mr. GEKONDE: You have computers and cars and things like that. That makes you view the world in a certain way, and we have bananas and maze and walks to the market on foot, lots of rain, and we have words that describe that lifestyle that people lead, and that's the way we view the world.

GRENS: Gekonde's worried the language is decaying. Back home, he says, English invades conversations sentence by sentence. The way he speaks with his friends is different than how he speaks with his mother.

Mr. GEKONDE: So if I say, for example, radio, a radio is on the table, and I want her to give it to me, I'm saying (foreign language spoken). Let me have the radio that is on the table. But if I were talking to my friend, I'll say (foreign language spoken) on the table.

GRENS: Gekonde says documenting Kisii can't stop its erosion by English, but it will at least preserve the way his parents' generation speaks.

Unidentified Male #1: How would you say it's not a book?

Mr. GEKONDE: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Male #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. GEKONDE: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Male #2: How would you say it's not a chair?

Mr. GEKONDE: (Foreign language spoken)

GRENS: For NPR News, I'm Kerry Grens.

Unidentified Male #3: How would you say it's not a river?

Mr. GEKONDE: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Male #1: Could you say that again?

Mr. GEKONDE: (Foreign language spoken)

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