Cal Students Study Nzadi: Studying African Languages

By Laurel Sutton

October 6, 2008

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle (by Patricia Yollin):

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.

When I was a grad student at UC Berkeley, I took this class; it’s a requirement on your way to getting a PhD. For me – and most of the other students, I think – it was one of the most fun and intense learning experiences we had. For the first time, we were actually doing field research: the class sits down with a native speaker and starts from scratch, asking for the most basic words, like “tree” and “nose” and “mother”. You have to transcribe the words, working to build up enough of a vocabulary to make simple sentences. I think this particular class is so lucky to get to analyze a previously “obscure” language (obscure to us in the West, certainly not to its native speakers in Africa).

My class was supposed to study a Tiberto-Burman language, but our informant eloped with her boyfriend right before classes started, and we ended up with Irish. Which was good for me, because Irish has palatalized consonants, and that formed the basis of my Master’s Thesis. I’m still going to prove that palatalized consonants in Japanese, Irish, and Russian are NOT the same. You just wait.

In the meantime, go UC Berkeley Linguistics Program! It’s what got me into naming in the first place.

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