Research at Rochester: Nadine Grimm helps the world stay wise to its many languages

“Púù yá bámbámbɔ́ bísì bà vú mɔ̀ bî – yá bálɛ́ɛ̀ mápè’è máwɔ̀.” To our ancestors who left us – let us keep their wisdom.

This quote marks the beginning of Nadine Grimm’s “A Grammar of Gyeli” along with a photo of where she was staying in Ngòló, a village in southern Cameroon. There are six huts and about 25 people in Ngòló, but each room is full of previously unused cultural life and knowledge. The photos are full of the same life.

A teenager walking barefoot looks away from the camera holding a baby in his arms. She was frozen in time, adjusting half of the swaddling blanket. The little boy in the Hello Kitty shirt smears halfway in the blink of an eye. The older woman on the right hand loosened a metal plate between her forearm and breast as she ate.

Grimm, the only white face in the photo, feels most “photographed”: her earrings match her shirt And she looks directly at the camera. This is true of Grimm’s language style, which focuses on how speakers use their language naturally in everyday life. Days.

According to Grimm, an assistant professor of linguistics at UR, who focuses on language documents and descriptions, the path to her comprehensive award in Gyeli language is “all by chance”.

While she was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in general linguistics and French at the University of Bielefeld, African language never thought of her. Undeterred, her professor mentioned the difficulty of seeking research assistance for a project in Nigeria. “I was shocked and said, ‘I’m totally coming,’ ‘Grimm said. “And he said, ‘You stay for next summer.’

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There she attended her first African conference, which spurred her passion for the African language in her body, which spanned her master’s and doctoral degrees. Degree with Department of Asian and African Studies at the University of Humboldt-Universit Berlinat zu Berlin.

Her study of Gyeli, a Bantu language spoken by “Pygmy” hunters in southern Cameroon and Bagyeli (what Gyeli speakers call themselves), coincidentally.

A future colleague Grimm met at a conference asked her to sign his grant request, noting that she could write her doctoral dissertation on Gyeli. She accepted and has since spent 19 months in Cameroon.

Grimm’s journey includes recording new Bagyeli data and processing data recorded in the city closest to the village (half-day trip away) with one or two Gyeli speakers at the same time. Her conversations with her subject changed over time – initially because they did not speak French, she would have a conversation with a neighbor who spoke a neighbor language with Gyeli called Mabi, which Bagyeli could understand.

Later, when her Gyeli improved and Bagyeli she became acquainted with the French language, they began to communicate directly. This became internally important to her data collection methods.

Historically, language documents were made by native speakers of the language, translating words and sentences, and providing grammatical judgment. However, Grimm’s field work focuses on the ‘language documentation’ approach, a new approach for linguists.

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“Primary data collection has many overlaps with the ethnic approach: participatory observation,” Grimm said. “We went hunting in the forest, we had the privilege of doing traditional healing and traditional dances throughout,” he said. Night. “We sat in the kitchen with the women while they were cooking and chatting.”

This technique of building relationships and showing the Bagyeli people that Grimm is “serious” about them, unlike the one-time visitor, helped her compile the reference grammar in “A Grammar of Gyeli”.

Reference grammar is important in linguistics because it covers all parts of a language, from sounds used to word formation and design. Sentences. They serve as a basic resource for linguists and as a document of the culture and history in which the language is embedded.

According to Grimm, we are experiencing a series of linguistic and cultural extinctions around the world due to the forces of globalization, higher mobility and media. While there are about 7,000 languages ​​in the world, 50-90% of the world’s languages ​​are currently considered endangered and about 70% are empty (if all) studied and documented.

Now the reference grammar of endangered languages ​​like Gyeli may be its only language description before they died. “When language dies, especially on a large scale, we lose the entire knowledge system, for example cultural aspects, ecology and medical knowledge,” Grimm said. “Linguists are losing their research material. Speakers are losing part of their identity.

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It is this concern that makes it important for Grimm to have a conversation with Gyeli speakers: to record how they use the language when they build huts, go hunting, collect honey, talk about how the industrial world affects the environment. Surround yourself and live. Without the recording of these natural conversations, Gyeli’s vitality (as it is said today) may be lost over time.

In addition, although there are about 500 Bantu languages, there is not much reference grammar for them, especially in the northwestern region of where they are often spoken. Thus Grimm’s work also facilitates the understanding of the grammatical structure of the Bantu language as a whole.

“Grammar of Gilead” is the sole winner of the 2023 Bloomfield Book Award from the American Language Association (LSA).

In announcing the award on the LSA website, their award committee praised Grimm’s initial video and audio offering to ensure accountability for her work. “Standards in language documents have increased over the years,” the committee said. “The LSA commends the authors for continuing and embracing these advances.”

When asked, Grimm summarizes her field work as both humble and exciting. “I have a lot of times when I think ‘I can not believe anyone,” she said. One for me to do this. “” Who else in the world creates such a relationship with people and experiences a completely different culture? “

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