Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Professor Battles to Save a Dying Language Ron Schaefer of Siue Wants to Preserve an African Tongue and Its 2,000 Years of History

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Professor Battles to Save a Dying Language Ron Schaefer of Siue Wants to Preserve an African Tongue and Its 2,000 Years of History

Article excerpt

THERE'S a serial killer at large right now, slaying victim after victim, and there's no way to stop the rampage.

The murderer is the English language. In a hundred years, 90 percent of the world's 6,500 existing languages will be goners, mowed down by the deadly triumvirate: Spanish, Chinese and English.

So what? So, much of the history and culture of the people who speak the extinguished language will be lost as well, gone with the vanished vocabulary, the vanished references to old gods. The disturbing fact is: As English takes over, so do English ideas. In a pocket of south central Nigeria, there's a fierce battle being waged against this linguistic and cultural hegemony. The field marshal is an English professor from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville - Ron Schaefer - who's trying to devise a written version of a language called Emai, currently spoken by maybe 30,000 people who are relinquishing it, word by ancestral word. The area where Emai still survives has perhaps 30 distinct tongues, all but one of which have no writing system, dependent for survival on oral use. Alas, in order to trade, the tribes use a pidgin English. English is also the language of the Nigerian university system. And as Schaefer says, "There's no vocabulary to talk about Madonna in Emai." So Emai, 2,000 years old, a linguistic storehouse of history in a region that has had almost no archaeological exploration, is inexorably being supplanted. But wait! Here comes Schaefer to rescue the language even as the Emai people are in the process of forgetting it! Here he comes with seconds to spare, anchoring the language to the page, lassoing escaping meanings, chiseling word spellings out of the vagaries of pronunciation, imposing an orderly grammar (subject, object, etc.) over the anarchy of speech. Da,da, da - dum - da! Da, da, da - dum - da! The publicist for SIUE sees Schaefer as a linguistic Indiana Jones. Actually, he's more a Robin Williams type. He has the fevered intellect, the sharp chin, the untamable kineticism. A guy for whom metabolism is style. He has a professorial goatee, wire-rimmed glasses and an interesting way of guarding against his own self-accelerating tendencies. Whenever he hears himself getting too wound up over the difficulties of capturing the ancient language of a people who are into Madonna, he has a phrase he uses like a checkrein: "It was very frustrating." Always rigorously a linguist - "My background isn't Goethe; I don't teach Shakespeare" - Schaefer taught in the linguistics department of the University of Benin, about 60 miles from where the Emai live, between 1981 and 1985. One of his students belonged to the tribe and lured Schaefer to his homeland. Originally, Schaefer grandly planned to study all 30 languages of the region. Subsequently, humbled, he modified his plan, concentrating on Emai, hoping it will serve later as a sort of skeleton key to the region's other tongues. Even trying to capture the unruliness of one language and provide it spelling and grammar is like trying to capture a cloud in a suitcase. "With the Emai people, the meaning of a word can change completely, depending upon the pronunciation," Schaefer said. "For instance, okpa, with a hard stress on the first syllable means number one. …

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