Twists in the road and routes of enquiry

by Hannah Gibson

One of the exciting things about research is the unexpected directions in which the findings can take you! Back in 2014 I had just started a postdoctoral research project at SOAS examining the presence of an unusual word order in a small group of East African Bantu languages. In some of my initial reading I came across a tantalizing line in a MA dissertation by Johnny Walker:

“…Simbiti shares an innovative compound form with Kuria and Gusii to indicate the Present Progressive. The form consists of a focus-marked infinitival followed by a copular auxiliary (predominantly of the –li/-ri variety…”

It was exactly this structure which was the focus of my research and I had, until this point, only identified the verb-auxiliary order in four languages (including Kuria and Gusii which he mentions). Its presence in Simbiti took the count up to five, and although I didn’t know it at the time, would lead me to examine this construction in a total of six languages and ultimately result in me getting on a plane to Tanzania.

Fast forward almost two and a half years and I have conducted research on two separate occasions in the Mara region – home to Simbiti and Ngoreme (the sixth language in my study). This has lead also to my involvement in the Mara Project.

The Mara region is of linguistic interest for many reasons. I have been drawn to working on these languages due to the high levels of language contact that characterise the region. I am particularly interested in the ways languages change – and do not change – in contexts of high multilingualism, and the Mara region provides an ideal case study for this.

I am also particularly interested in what happens in instances of contact between unrelated languages. Again, the region provides a great example of this. In addition to the some 20 Bantu varieties spoken in the area, the Mara region is home to the Nilotic languages Datooga and Luo. Cushitic languages have also historically been present in the area.

My research focuses on the effects of language contact on the structural level – such as the origins of the unusual word order that started this path of enquiry! I am also involved in a related project at SOAS which examines morphosyntactic variation and I have just started using the methodology developed by this project to explore the variation in the Mara languages. It’s an exciting time!