Prof. McPherson awarded 3-year NSF grant

Prof. Laura McPherson has been awared a 3-year NSF grant to study Seenku, an endangered language of West Africa


A reference grammar and tonal documentation of Seenku, an endangered Mande language

Over half of the world's estimated 7,000 languages are tonal, and most are spoken by small populations, threatened by globalization and changing socioeconomic landscapes. This project will advance scientific understanding of tone and tonal languages more generally. This project will answer some of the many questions remaining about tone by focusing on a language displaying exceptional tonal complexity. The investigation of a language with four tones, a relatively uncommon cross-linguistic pattern, will better inform linguists about the upper bounds on the number of distinct tones and the types of grammatical information represented solely through tone. The project will provide new insights into many questions remaining about tone and phonological reduction, and on the behavior of a complex tonal system in morphology and syntax. The results will be disseminated via a reference grammar that includes and fully documents tone in its grammatical context, as well as by archived, annotated language data. Broader impacts include fostering international scientific cooperation and training undergraduate students in methods of language documentation and analysis. This contributes to the national interest by enabling soft diplomacy through scientific and technological training of international partners and by producing language scientists for the twenty-first century with expertise in cutting-edge techniques. This award is co-funded by the Office of International Science and Engineering. 

This project focuses on documenting the grammatical structure of Seenku, an endangered Mande language of Burkina Faso. Even in the African context, Seenku is exceptional for its tonal complexity, both in the number of contrasting pitch levels and the range of uses of tone in the grammar. Special attention is paid to documenting and analyzing the tone system using a variety of innovative methods. First, the research team will develop a novel computational tool ATLAS (Automated Tone Level Annotation System) to automate the tonal annotation of documentary materials. Tone can be notoriously difficult and time-consuming to transcribe, and the development of this tool will help other researchers and linguistic communities working on tonal languages. Second, tone will be studied through a culturally unique tradition in which Seenku words are encoded on the xylophone through their tone and rhythm. Mechanisms like this produce tones without the segmental and other features, which interact with surface tone realizations. This mechanism provides a rare window into speakers' subconscious knowledge of their language, addressing questions of cognitive representations of tone. The main products of this project include a comprehensive reference grammar, a trilingual Seenku-English-French dictionary, and an archive of audio and video recordings of various speech genres, with time-aligned transcriptions and translations. These products are of use to linguists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).