University of Missouri
College of Arts & Science

Michael Marlo Receives NSF Grant to Research Four Under-documented Varieties of Luyia

Michael Marlo and Harun Inyanje Masambu, a Tiriki consultant for the storytelling project, standing near the Yala River in Luyialand.
Michael Marlo carrying out dissertation research on a river that runs into Lake Victoria, near the town of Port Victoria in Luyialand.
Michael Marlo with his longtime research assistant, Moses Egesa (left) and a neighbor (right) in Khalaba village near Bungoma in Luyialand.

Why should you say “the round blue ball” instead of “ball blue round the”? Native speakers have the rules of their language engrained in them from a very young age. But a non-native speaker must ask, “What are the rules?” Answering that question leads to a broader one, “How and why do languages vary in the rules they have?” Studying closely related languages can tell us important details of how languages vary, which sheds light on the nature of human language.

Michael Marlo, assistant professor of English, received a four-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to investigate these questions as head of a collaborative team researching four under-documented varieties of Luyia, a group of Bantu languages of Kenya and Uganda. Marlo will work with co-principal investigator Vicki Carstens, professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; Michael Diercks, assistant professor at Pomona College; Kristopher Ebarb, who will be a postdoctoral researcher at Mizzou; Christopher Green, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland; David Odden, professor emeritus at The Ohio State University; and Mary Paster, associate professor at Pomona College. The team has a wide variety of specialties. Their collaboration will allow specialists in syntax (sentence structure) and specialists in phonology (sound systems) to study each of the four Luyia varieties: Bukusu, Logoori, Tiriki, and Wanga.

The $343,479 grant began on June 1 and will continue through May 2018. David Read, chair of the English department said, “This grant is the largest that we've ever had in the department. NSF grants are hardly ever housed in English departments, which makes this especially impressive.”

Marlo first became interested in Luyia when he took a field methods course and studied a variety of Luyia as an undergraduate student. He later co-wrote a book called A Grammatical Sketch of the Lusaamia Verb. Since then, Marlo has studied several different varieties of Luyia and has worked on an online dictionary project. He is not alone in his interest in the diverse tone systems in Luyia, and he credits this award to the outstanding team of collaborators working on the grant.

The project will use a team-based model and rely heavily on data-rich and theoretically informed linguistic description and analysis. Marlo says, “We aim to have a holistic and comprehensive approach. By bringing expert linguists in multiple subfields together, we can focus on some very specific issues that are difficult to get at without collaboration.”

This summer, the hard work will begin. Marlo and team will review the preliminary information they have already collected and move forward with analysis and field work. For some, this will require traveling to Kenya to conduct interviews with native speakers. The Bukusu, Logoori, Tiriki, and Wanga communities are located in a remote portion of western Kenya. It takes more than eight hours to get there by bus from Nairobi. The researchers have the opportunity to stay in Mahanga village in the family home of Billystrom Jivetti, PhD ’12. Marlo met Jivetti, an assistant professor of sociology at Wiley College in Texas, when Jivetti was studying rural sociology at MU. He is a native Tiriki speaker, and the connection with him has been especially helpful to the team. 

There is very little written about these varieties of Luyia, and there is some threat to the long term vitality of the languages. Marlo explains, “We’re not trying to save the varieties—we’re trying to document them. But in documenting them, it helps people realize that there is value in their language.” The team will produce monographs on each variety, including a grammatical outline, a detailed description of the tonal system, in-depth studies in syntax, a collection of texts, and a dictionary. Much of the project will be freely available online, and relevant materials, including recordings of oral history, folk tales, songs, and other cultural recordings, will be disseminated within the appropriate local communities.

“We’re really thrilled that this grant is going to support our work and allow us to do what we envision. I believe this is a good model to use for language documentation and description; the methodology is replicable,” Marlo says. “We want our project to be successful so researchers working on projects for different languages can emulate this model. It will be good for our field. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is exciting to be at the beginning.”

By Kristi Galloway, College of Arts and Science
June 6, 2014