Wednesday, May 9, 2018

NSF Grant on Khoisan Languages

Abstract Title: Developing the next generation of researchers investigating the
Khoisan languages (BCS-1760980)
Institution: New York University
Abstract Date: 03/14/2018

The Khoisan languages of southern Africa are known for their striking click sounds, which are some of the most complex and difficult to produce sounds of all the languages of the world. Because of this, most scientific research on the Khoisan languages has focused on their sound systems, and not on their grammatical systems. As a consequence, the study of the syntax, semantics and morphology of the Khoisan languages has had little or no impact on current linguistic theories. This grant will study syntactic aspects of two completely undescribed Khoisan languages, Cua and Tshila. A unique feature of this project will be its training component. This project will bring advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students to Botswana to train them in doing linguistic research on the Khoisan languages. The project will have the effect of increasing the number of researchers working on the highly endangered Khoisan languages of Botswana. In this way, the project will be training students to do international research. The project will work closely with the language communities in developing materials, and they will have access to all the materials produced. The project will also help to document the rich cultural heritage of Botswana, and southern Africa more generally.
            The scientific goals of the project will based on the descriptions of the Khoisan languages that the PI and the students produce. The project will result in a dictionary, oral texts, a spelling primer, a grammatical sketch and academic papers. These materials will help in understanding the linguistic classification of the central Khoisan languages, and their historical connections to other Khoisan languages. The project will also investigate the unique syntactic and morphological structures of Cua and Tshila, which should be of use to syntacticians and morphologists doing theoretical and typological work. For example, the grammatical sketch will cover the complex system of pronouns. English has handful of pronouns. In subject position, these are: I, you (singular and plural), he, she, we, they. Central Khoisan languages have far more pronouns. Kua (a related Khoisan language) has 31 subject pronouns (factoring in person, number, gender). The same morphological features that characterize pronouns also characterize the PGN (person-gender-number) markers found on noun phrases. For example, in Kua χám̄=ǁòè is glossed lion=3MPS and means ‘male lions’. The clitic ǁòè encodes both the notion of plurality (more than two) and masculine reference. Understanding the structure of pronouns and PGN markers and how they vary across the eastern Kalahari Khoe languages is one of the central scientific goals of the project.

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