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University of Missouri

Logging Languages

English Assistant Professor Michael Marlo documents African languages.

Michael Marlo

Michael Marlo received a National Science Foundation grant to investigate understudied African languages and document their linguistic properties. Photo courtesy of Michael Marlo.

It’s rare that arts and humanities professors receive grants from an agency known for supporting work in science and engineering. So it’s impressive that Michael Marlo, assistant professor of English, received a $343,479 National Science Foundation grant — the largest ever for the department — to document understudied languages in Africa. The grant is from the NSF division that supports research on the human brain, behavior, language and culture.

Marlo will research the linguistic properties of four varieties of Luyia, a group of Bantu languages of Kenya and Uganda. Because more people are speaking Swahili and English, these languages are at risk of dying out. For each language, Marlo will create a grammatical outline, a report on the tonal system and sentence structure, a collection of texts, and a dictionary. The findings, including recordings of oral history, folk tales and songs, will be made available to the local communities and online.

The methodology is replicable,” Marlo says. “It will be good for our field.”

Marlo hopes this project will become a model for researchers documenting other languages.

We’re not trying to save the varieties. We’re trying to document them,” Marlo says. “But in documenting them, it helps people realize that there is value in their language.”