Academic journal article Studies in African Linguistics

From Elmolo to Gura Pau: A Remembered Cushitic Language of Lake Turkana and Its Possible Revitalization

Academic journal article Studies in African Linguistics

From Elmolo to Gura Pau: A Remembered Cushitic Language of Lake Turkana and Its Possible Revitalization

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

1. The Elmolo people today

The Elmolo are a small fishing community living near Lake Turkana, in northeast Kenya. Long considered "the smallest tribe of Kenya" and on the verge of extinction, the Elmolo have actually been increasing in number in recent years; while less than 100 people were counted by Spencer (1973), and Heine (1980) gave their number as approximately 200, they are today approximately 700 (Otiero 2008: 5 gives their number as 613 following a headcount he personally conducted). A major role in their recent demographic history seems to have been played by the decision (in the seventies of the 20th century) to give up endogamy.

A minority lives in the District (formerly a Division) center of Loiyangalani, but the overwhelming majority inhabits two villages: Layieni (6 km. north of Loiyangalani), which according to the 1999 Kenya National Census counted 70 households and 363 people; and Komote (13 km. North of Loiyangalani), with 63 households and 250 people, for a total of 613.2 Approximate geographic coordinates are: 2°45' N, 36° 43' E. Other Elmolo live for at least part of the year further North of Komote, especially in Palo (25 km. North of Loiyangalani), where they fish and attend to goats (no grazing being possible in Layieni and Komote).

The location of Elmolo and the neighboring languages is shown in the map below:

Finally, a section of the Elmolo is settled on an island off Ileret, 70 km. south of the Ethiopian border. Just as the southern Elmolo have shifted their language allegiance to Samburu (see below), their northern brethren have adopted Dhaasanac. According to Michael Basili (private communication), a few northern Elmolo may still know bits of the ancestral language.

Although the Elmolo still depend primarily on fishing, they have also acquired many goats and even some cattle, which are attended to by Turkana and Samburu herdsmen in the Mount Kulal area. Tourism, although occasional, is another important source of income. In terms of religion, he Elmolo are now completely Roman Catholic.

Uncertainty surrounds the very name of the Elmolo: Heine (1980: 175) states that Elmolo, preceded by the Maa article l-, derives from Samburu mó-lu 'this man,'. This etymology is unknown to the speakers interviewed as part of this study. Heine says further that the original autoethnonym was gúra páu 'people (of the) lake,' a denomination which has nowadays gained some currency among the community and, as will be detailed below, is also the name adopted by the cultural association of the Elmolo.

2. The Elmolo language shift

The Elmolo today speak Samburu (ISO 639 code: saq) as their first language, a northern Maa variety (Nilo-Saharan, Eastern Nilotic branch) especially close to Camus (or Il-Chamus) and very similar to the Maa spoken by the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania. As a second language, most of the Elmolo know Swahili, and a few speak at least some English. Bi- and multilingualism in other languages of the area has not been checked.

Samburu was adopted during the first half of the 20th century and replaced an East Cushitic language of the Omo-Tana group, especially close to Dhaasanac (Tosco 2001) and even more so to Arbore (Hayward 1984) of Southwest Ethiopia; Elmolo forms with these two languages the Western branch of Omo-Tana; Somali and Rendille are representatives of the East branch. The classificatory position of Elmolo within the Omo-Tana subgroup of East Cushitic is shown in the following figure:

This language, commonly referred to as Elmolo (ISO 639 code: elm) is for all practical purposes extinct. According to the community, the last "good" speaker, Kaayo, died in 1999.3

Knowledge of Cushitic Elmolo is based upon Bernd Heine's fieldwork in the 1970s and consists of a short vocabulary (Heine 1972/73) and grammatical notes (Heine 1975/76) in German, later followed, after renewed fieldwork, by a comprehensive sketch and glossary in English (Heine 1980). …

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