Endangered African languages preserved by SND

(Published 2014-03-04)
More than 2,000 languages are spoken in Africa but many of them are in danger of disappearing. Researchers at universities all over the world are trying to preserve the knowledge of these and other endangered languages, a line of work that means constantly fighting the clock. SND has now started publishing data from such research.

The severity of the threat can vary, as can the reasons for it. Many languages spoken only by small groups of people are gradually being replaced by larger languages, as knowledge of these is necessary in order to get access to education and employment. In some cases there are political reasons: in countries with a large number of languages, the desire to forge national cohesion may lead to smaller languages being forbidden or not taught in schools. It is also expensive to maintain a multilingual educational and political system.
Affisch på Swahili, skola i Tanzania.
Research on these languages often aims primarily at documenting as much as possible. Pronunciation, grammar, lexicon, stories, dialects, social and other variations are a few examples of traits that are unique for every language. Often, only a few elderly speakers remain and the researchers try to document what they can before these speakers pass away and the language dies with them.

One reason for documenting endangered languages is the hope of helping speakers preserve their native tongue by writing for example text books, dictionaries, and curricula. Furthermore, the greater number of languages there is data on, the more information do researchers have access to. This information is the used for drawing conclusions about how human language works and what general tendencies there are in language.

During the winter of 2013, SND received research data from the African section at the Department of Languages and Literatures, University of Gothenburg. The first study has now been published, Malin Petzell’s Three stories in Kagulu, a Bantu language of Tanzania. The study comprises three sound recordings with transcriptions, and it can now be ordered via SND’s catalogue.

The files are part of a larger project with the aim to document Kagulu, a language spoken by 140,000 people in the regions of Morogoro and Dodoma in Tanzania. The language is not severely endangered but was previously fairly undocumented.

Another material still being processed by SND documents Mpiemo, a Bantu language spoken by about 24,000 people predominantly in the Central African Republic. The data consist of varying kinds of material, mainly sound recordings but also, among other things, a word list.

SND is looking forward to a continued cooperation with the African languages group and other similar groups and departments at other universities. There is no central archive for endangered languages in Sweden. There is the Institute for Language and Folklore which focuses on languages spoken in Sweden, primarily Swedish dialects and the national minority languages.
The Swedish Language Bank gathers corpora and lexical resources and also focuses on Swedish language material.


Photo: Poster with Swahili text in a school in Tanzania, photo taken by Tove Rosendal.