Linguistics Online

Bantuists Revel in a New Tool as the Study of Language Blooms on the Web

by Cathy Cockrell

Download a dictionary. Search for a cognate. Generate a linguistic map. Using computing power and the new international communication potential of the Internet, the linguistics department is developing a web-based resource that may prove invaluable to linguists, anthropologists, ethnobotanists and many other "ists."

The project's name is the Comparative Bantu On-Line Dictionary. Its goal is to document 500 Bantu-family languages of sub-Saharan Africa and develop software tools to make these accessible and useful to others.

"These documents," reads its web page, "are maintained as a service to the Bantuists of the world."

Bantuists of the world and all web-connected others can access the project's vast cache of data, eventually to include more than 4,000 reconstructed roots from Proto-Bantu (the 3,000-year-old mother language) and dictionaries of Bantu languages from Adere to Zinza.

Many, in return, are contributing the fruits of their research, some of it done decades ago and stored until now on deteriorating scraps of paper.

From Tanzania, Father Andrew Halema, a Catholic missionary, has provided his 20,000-word dictionary of Mambwe. Graduate students interested in Bantu languages are contributing electronic dictionaries of Yao, Kalanga, Ndebele or Chichewa.

"We're becoming a clearinghouse," says Larry Hyman, linguistics department chair and director of the Comparative Bantu On-Line Dictionary.

"People are just thrilled. From Africa, Europe, North AmericaŃeveryone's been so forthcoming. It really feels like people were waiting for this to happen." The project's web site includes a "Bantuist Manifesto," whose signatories vow to freely share their information.

International interest in the project is also reflected in its roster of participants and funders. The Berkeley team works in close collaboration with scholars at France's Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage, directed by Jean-Marie Hombert, and the Universit╚ Lumi╦re de Lyon, where Hombert (who received his PhD from Berkeley in 1975) is professor of linguistics.

Originally awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the Bantu On-Line Dictionary has recently received a $280,000 renewal. On the other side of the Atlantic, the French government is providing funding through its Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and its Programme International de Cooperation Scientifique. Seed money for the project was supported by the France-Berkeley fund.

The Berkeley linguistics department has a long history of projects in lexicography, or the study of dictionary making, dating back at least 50 years. In the 1990s, the most exciting developments in lexicography involve computer technologies.

"The department's involvement in computational lexicography is cutting edge," says researcher John Lowe, who directs the computer aspects of several Berkeley-based computer-age lexicons -- the Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and the Turkish Electronic Living Lexicon, in addition to the Bantu On-Line Dictionary.

Recent developments in scanning technology vastly simplify his job of inputting the dictionaries. Map-making software permits linguists to produce visual representations of the distribution of particular linguistic characteristics. An audio component developed by the Lyon laboratory allows students of languages of Gabon to click on a particular village to hear how a word is pronounced there.

Best of all for researchers in linguistics, developments in database technology mean that machines can now do the tedious work of searching through hundreds of dictionaries to find cognates, languages with the root "tade" for "iron" or words with an internal "r."

The possible lines of inquiry from such arcane-sounding searches are impressive. Hyman and his collaborators are interested, for example, in using linguistics to study history.

The Bantu homeland, they point out, is the part of west African now known as Cameroon. But Bantu languages were also spoken 2,000 years ago in Eastern Africa near Lake Victoria. Did Bantu-speaking peoples cross the African continent by the waterways of the rain forest? Or did they migrate north or south around its edges?

Since physical remains don't survive for long in the acid soils of the rain forest, linguists studying the varying words for fishes, primates or plants across the continent may hold a key. The Comparative Bantu On-line Dictionary may prove an in-valuable tool in the quest to solve this and many other puzzles.


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