Building a Corpus of Ekegusii

I’ve learned that the ideal time for doing recordings is between 5pm and 7pm, after people have finished their work for the day, but before the heavy rains start for the evening. Since the only thing separating the people sitting in the living room from the sky is a sheet of corrugated metal, the sound of the rain hitting the roof makes recording all but impossible. I’ve pulled it off in a pinch though, and actually managed to get some surprisingly good-quality audio. I’ve also gotten pretty good at setting up recording environments in the dark, since at Ken & Janet’s farm the power goes out whenever it rains, and at Gladys & Charles’ farm they don’t turn on the solar-powered batteries until they start preparing dinner, usually around 8pm.

Despite devoting this past week to translating the recordings I already have, recording opportunities have continued to present themselves. The other night I finally was able to record about 2 hours of conversation surrounding dinner (mouth noises while eating and allǃ), and I was thrilled to get that much natural conversation. Tonight one of Gladys’ neighbors also came over to record a story, and wound up recording about 10 songs together with Gladys as wellǃ Since one of the songs was traditionally sung during the female circumcision ritual, I asked Teresa, the speaker, to explain the song’s role in the ceremony to me in Ekegusii, and so I recorded a great conversation between Teresa and Gladys talking about that. In short, this week saw the completion of everything I could have hoped to record for this trip, providing me with an array of data types: traditional stories, personal histories, conversations, songs, explanatory discourse, and even a proverb or two. In future trips, I’d love to record the several hundred proverbs that Kennedy & Gladys included in the back of their dictionary. Helen, an absolutely sweet woman who teaches kindergarten and provided me with about 20 stories, also said she’d love to record a collection of riddles with me as well. I think putting together a collection of short recordings like proverbs and riddles would be invaluable both for research and language revitalization purposes. In terms of research, it’s a realistic goal with a defined scope, with data that’s fairly homogenous, and likely to include lots of rare and archaic words. In terms of language revitalization, the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project would love to be able to put recordings and explanations of all the proverbs and riddles online, and so doing all these recordings would directly enable that. So I’m beginning to mull over the possibilities of doing something like that during my next visit, possible next summer (funding willing).

The vast majority of my time this past week, though, has been devoted to slogging through the stories we’ve recorded with Gladys, one phrase at a time. It’s incredibly tedious work, but Gladys has been absolutely indefatigable and insists on getting as much done before I leave, taking breaks only to prepare meals, after which she’ll come out to the porch where I’ve setup my little workspace and say, “Ok Nyakundi, time for class!”, and we’ll resume translating.

To give you an idea of what this involves, I first have to take the recording and segment it into manageable chunks, usually just a short phrase at a time (what are called ‘intonation units’ among linguists). I have special software (ELAN) that allows me to do this in just a couple minutes. Then Gladys and I listen to each phrase and write it down in Ekegusii. We’ll typically listen to each phrase a dozen times, unless it’s some really frequent phrase, which at this point I’m able to write down and translate myself. The first few passes we focus on just making sure we heard the words right. Then I write an initial guess at what I’m hearing, which almost always needs further correcting. A huge obstacle in this kind of work is that people will pronounce things different in isolation versus in a sentence. And in a language with tone like Ekegusii, this is especially problematic, because the tones often change depending on the context of the sentence. So I first start by writing the sounds I hear, without worrying about tone. Even this isn’t as easy as it seems. It can actually be very difficult at times to distinguish between the /e/ and /ɛ/ sounds (bait vs. bet), or /o/ and /ɔ/ sounds (cot vs. caught, though not all English speakers make this distinction), so the next few listening passes are usually to make sure I haven’t missed any of the vowels. Next I’ll go through and listen for tone, at first with Gladys saying things word by word, and then by asking her to say the sentence as a whole, and comparing that to what I’m hearing in the recording. With the Ekegusii phrase now written more-or-less accurately, we then work together to translate the phrase to English. This too is not as easy as it seems, because it’s important to capture all the meaning of the Ekegusii sentence in a way that will allow me to piece together what’s going on in the language later. This usually means writing a translation that isn’t really grammatical English. This is actually fine, since most speakers tend to translate literally and word-for-word anyway – a huge help for me when doing analysis. That’s one phrase. Then we move to the next. When we’re done, we have a nice transcript in both Ekegusii and English, although both will have to be transliterated later into text that speakers can read. Because I use the special characters of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to write the Ekegusii, it needs to rewritten (transliterated) into the way of writing that people use every day when writing the language, a version that doesn’t involve any tone marks or special vowels, etc. In addition, I’ll also need to write an edited English transcript that’s understandable to English speakers. But for the purposes of my research, the IPA transcription and literal translations is extremely helpful.

All in all, it takes about an hour to transcribe and translate just 1 minute of text. Despite the slow going, and despite both Gladys and I coming down with a cold for a few days, we’ve managed to transcribe and translate a total of 42 minutes of traditional storiesǃ I couldn’t be more thrilledǃ It’s shaping up to be an excellent corpus of Ekegusii discourse, that I’ll be able to use for all sorts of research projects in the future, and that the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project will have as a rich cultural archive.

Documenting Ekegusii

One of the nice things about being upcountry is that it makes for great cardio. At this altitutde, running takes on a whole new level of difficulty. My second day at Ken & Janet’s farm I managed a 2.5-mile run (compare that to the 6 miles I usually do in Santa Barbara and you get a sense of the relative difficulty) along the switchbacks snaking through the hills, and was treated to views of the valley glowing with sunlight below. It’s best to run as early in the morning as possible since there are fewer people out and as a white person you tend to attract less attention. Exercising simply isn’t a recreational activity for the majority of Kenyans. While those in the city at least tend to know what you’re doing (but yell to get your attention as you’re running anyway), people in the more rural areas find it bizarre. And the kids think it’s hilarious, and will often run after me laughing and shouting things til they get tired of it (good quality headphones are a plus here). Learning how to say ‘I’m exercising’ in Swahili helped too.

After my run, I had my first pocket shower, which turns out to be a lengthy process because you need to heat up water, and the shower bag still hangs low enough that you have to squat down to wash under it. Coincidentally, this is how most Kenyans wash anyway, taking a sponge bath out of a basin of hot water on the ground, so I think that actually had something to do with why the family took to it so quickly.

My third day on the farm, Ken & Janet’s two boys returned home from boarding school in Kisii Town. The boarding schools here sound pretty intense: they’re not allowed to take electronics or almost any personal belongings with them, and only talk to their families when they coordinate a phone call through one of the teachers or schoolmasters. So the boys were very happy to be home for the summer. At the same time, they’re anxious to get to Mombasa, which they consider their home and where all their friends are. Being typical teenage boys, they get bored pretty fast on the farm where there’s very little to do and electricity is intermittent. Hearing them complain about not having power for the three days it was out was pretty hilarious actually, and Janet had a good time poking fun at them about it. Their names are Mark and Michael. I actually share an Ekegusii name with Michael, also known as Nyakundi when he’s in Kisii. Mark is about to start his last year of secondary school, and has aspirations of going to university to study economics / business, and then wants to open a business in Mombasa or Kisii. Michael is a few years younger (in his first year of secondary school, I think), and is passionate about music and movies. He seems to know the actors and plot of every one of the hit movies from the past decade. Both of them love basketball, which surprised me a bit (soccer being the huge sport here, like it is pretty much everywhere in Africa). After they returned to Mombasa about a week ago, Mark messaged me excitedly that the basketball court they play at now had lights: “Now we’ll play until dawn!”

Since we needed groceries, once the boys were settled in we waited for a matatu for three hours, to no avail. So I caved and we called a taxi into town. We wound up having a nice lunch (terrible food and service but a fun time getting to know the boys and Janet better) at a place called The Nile, on a second floor balcony overlooking the only roundabout / major intersection in town. Then we went shopping in the open air market and at Nakumatt (Kenya’s version of Walmart) before heading home. That evening, since I happened to have a movie rental on my phone that was about to expire and because the power went out when it started raining, the boys and I piled onto the couch to watch Jack Ryan on my phone – with popcorn and everything! I’ve discovered that roasted corn and popcorn are quite the thing here. In fact, thinking on it now, I don’t think a single evening went by without there being roasted corncobs as a pre- or post-dinner snack.

The two weeks following went by in a blur. The next day I spent at a hotel in town, enjoying access to fast wifi, while Janet attended a funeral. (I’m sad to say that the number of funerals and deaths that Ken, Janet, or Gladys have been affected by in the mere two months I’ve been here probably numbers around a dozen. Granted, Kenyan social networks and families tend to be significantly larger than American ones, so this is somewhat expected statistically and in my experience the normal rate at which people experience these things here, but that doesn’t make the loss any less significant.) The next day Janet also had to run errands, so she dropped me and the boys off at her mother Thenina’s house. Upon learning what I was doing in Kenya, Thenina immediately wanted to tell me a story. Anticipating this, I had brought my Edirol recorder with me, and so got a great recording of the story of Hare and Cheetah. The really neat part was, when she was done Thenina explained the story to Mark and Michael, whose Ekegusii is largely passive. Over the course of the two weeks at Ken & Janet’s, as I recorded various songs from different people, the two of them were treated to all sorts of traditional stories they had never heard before. I don’t think they quite realized the stories even existed, so they would sit and listen eagerly anytime I was recording. This turned out to be great for my research too, because it gave the speaker an audience who could actually understand (mostly) what they were saying, and therefore give them someone to direct the story to. It seemed to put the speakers a lot more at ease. I also learned a number of things I wouldn’t have otherwise, because the storytellers would often explain things to Mark and Michael. For example, every story in Ekegusii starts with Moganó ngóːcha ánde? ‘May I, the Story, come?’, to which the audience is supposed to respond, Moganó ínchuo ‘Come, Storyǃ’. The reason for this, it was explained, is that the speaker takes on the identity of the story itself, so that it’s no longer the person just telling the story, but the story narrating itself. Mark and Michael soaked it all up. And as I’d be going about the house asking Janet about the words for this or that thing, Mark and Michael would jump in and ask questions as well. They even memorized a few of the proverbs that Ken & Gladys included in the back of the dictionary after I had shown that section to them one night. So I was thrilled to see them fostering an interest in their language.

By the end of my two-week stay with Janet, I had recorded
• 2 hours of video documenting the process of planting, harvesting, winnowing, cracking, and grinding sorghum, with continual explanations and discussions between the women of the entire process in Ekegusii
• A few short conversations in Ekegusii
• 30+ traditional folktales, about 2-5 minutes each
• An autobiography, several hours in length (the speaker asked if he could just record by himself for a few hours after dinner one night, wanting very much for his story to made available online!)
• Several Christian songs
• 1 flour-grinding song
Gladys is hoping to get someone to record a few traditional songs with me as well, and I’m thinking that this week I might do something I’ve been wanting to all month, which is to setup some recorders around the living room immediately after dinner, when people tend to sit and chat and tell stories for a good hour or so. The trick is that I want to get permission from everybody in advance of dinner and start the recorders early so as not to make people too self-conscious (or at the very least, to let them get used to the recorders for a bit first). And even as I was leaving Ken & Janet’s farm, I had other people in the neighborhood telling me they had more stories they’d like to record with me as well!

That said, at this point I’ve got way more data than I could hope to process while I’m here, so while I’m still recording with anybody who requests it, I’m otherwise not actively looking to record more for the time being (the exception being that post-dinnertime conversation, since I don’t have much in the way of really natural conversation yet). And that is precisely why I now find myself here at the farm of Gladys and her husband Charles, some distance on the other side of Kisii.

Since Janet had never planned to stay long in Kisii, and the boys were eager to return to Mombasa, they caught a bus back to the coast last Friday, leaving just me and Morris at the farm. Since I had already done an elicitation session with Morris for Luhya the week prior, and since he knew that I was recording stories, he asked if I wanted to record some Luhya stories as well, and I happily said yes. I probably won’t do anything with the data for the time being other than archive it (so if you’re a researcher interested in any of the Luhya languages let me know), but it’s possible that if I return in future summers we’ll be able to continue working together.

After a few days of quiet at the farm, Gladys arrived in Kisii and arranged to bring me to her farm on the other side of town, where our major goal is to translate as many of the stories I’ve recorded as possible. So that’s where I sit now, on the porch overlooking her tomato greenhouse and watching newly-hatched gosslings waddle around the farm under the protective eyes of their parents. But now it’s time to get back to translating!

Leaving Mombasa

[This post was written on Aug. 8, but since I've been without power for 3 days you're getting the delayed version :) ]

Hard to believe it’s only been a week since my last post! Last Friday I treated myself to a day at a place called Aroma Cafe in Mombasa while the rest of my homestay family was at work. The hilarious part was that I spotted about six other wazungu (white people) when I walked in – more than I had seen during my entire stay in Mombasa combined. Americans like their lattes, I guess.

Continue reading

3 Ways to Be a Long Vowel in Ekegusii

There are 3 ways a vowel may be realized as phonetically long in Ekegusii:
1. A phonemically long vowel that speakers hear as long
Example: tààtá ‘father’

2. A phonetically long vowel that speakers hear as short

Example: ɛ́ŋɔ́ːndí ‘sheep’

3. Two short vowels placed next to each other that are part of separate syllables
Example: ékeené ‘log’

There are a few pieces of evidence that suggest that these analyses are correct. First, while phonemically long (1) and double vowels (3) can have rising tones or falling tones (that is, the first mora can have a different tone than the second), phonetically long vowels (2) cannot. Or at least, the rise or fall is phonetic and not phonemic. So while it’s possible to have words like áàsé ‘place’ (1) and ɛ́kɛɛ́nɛ́ ‘truth’ (3), which have falling and rising tones respectively, it’s not possible to have *ɛ́ŋɔ̂ːndí.

Even though, phonetically, the word éɲùndò ‘hammer’ is pronounced [éɲúùndò], speakers hear the second vowel as a single low-tone /ù/.

The phonetic falling tone is simply the result of peak delay on the initial high tone – that is, it takes a while to come down off the initial high tone, so that the beginning of the following low tone still sounds high for a short period of time. Thus rising or falling tones may only occur on phonemic long vowels or a sequence of two short vowels. The difference is subtle but principled.

As far as the coalescence of two short vowels is concerned, the syllable break is often clearly audible, especially when the tone on the two vowels is different.

Most helpfully, however, is the fact that Gladys and Kennedy were largely consistent in how they represented the three types of long vowel in the dictionary. Here are some examples from their dictionary for each type:

1. Phonemically long vowels:
sika [siːka] ’cause to ferment’
(phonetically [sííká])

2. Phonetically long vowels:
genda [gẹnda] ‘go’
(phonetically [ɣɛ̀ːndà])

3. Two short vowels:
ekeene [ẹkẹẹnẹ] ‘truth’
(phonetically [ɛ́kɛ.ɛ́nɛ́])

Only the third case is actually written with two vowels in the dictionary; the other two cases show just a single vowel in the headword. And of those two, only phonemically long vowels show a long mark <ː> in the pronunciation. In other words, it’s generally possible to distinguish which of the three long vowels a word has by its dictionary entry – pretty convenient!

So there you have it: 3 ways to be a long vowel in Ekegusii!

Diving into Ekegusii [é.kè.ɣù.sì.í]

Most of my posts so far have been about Mombasa and my homestay family, but as much of a joy as it’s been to see them again, the real reason I’m here is the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project (EEP), and in that regard I certainly haven’t been idle.

A screenshot of the Ekegusii dictionary in Lexique Pro. ngegu is ‘ashore (adv.)’, while engegu is ‘shore (n.)’

As was expected, it took some time to get in touch with Kennedy and meet up, first because I had to get a phone and make my way down to Mombasa, and then because Kennedy was tied up with work. Continue reading

Fun in Mombasa

Despite safety issues in the city, I’ve still managed to enjoy myself while here, mostly in the company of my homestay brothers, who kindly insist on going with me anytime I go out, which is absolutely fine by me, both for safety reasons, and because they’re just fun to be around.

Last Friday, the morning of the recent shooting, I went to the Mombasa archaeology center with Mchula, who works there.

The office floor where Mchula works

The office floor where Mchula works

They’ve just built a brand new building that overlooks Fort Jesus and some of the prettier parts of Old Town.

The view from Mchula's office

The view from Mchula’s office

He then took me to their library, which while small actually houses a useful collection of books, many of which were relevant to my interests. So I bought a one-month pass (not knowing then that I wouldn’t be staying in Mombasa) so I can relax and work there during the day. It’s quiet and cool, so a nice place to work, and something to just get me out of the house.

Mchula at the archaeology center

Mchula at the archaeology center

After the library, Mchula toured me around the Swahili Cultural Center. It’s really an amazing organization they’ve got going. They have programs that teach men how to do the traditional types of Swahili woodworking, especially the beds and intricately-carved doors they’re known for, and women how to sew kofias in the traditional designs. They also have Swahili language classes and a variety of other cultural events at different times.

The Swahili Cultural Center

The Swahili Cultural Center

It’s actually a model that Kennedy would like to emulate with Ekegusii – funding permitting, he’d like to start a cultural center like this, where youth could come to learn all the traditional ways of doing things. Many of the people who participate in the training at the cultural center go on to sell the crafts they make, and it becomes a business for them. It would be wonderful to see something similar happen for the Abagusii.

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

After leaving Mchula at his office, I strolled around the garden behind Fort Jesus for a bit, and ran into a butterfly garden of all things.


Apparently it’s only been open about two months. The garden was really nicely done, and the variety of butterflies they have in this region is really pretty astounding.

Afterwards I slipped down the street to the office for the School for International Training, where my study abroad program was based in 2006-2007. The program coordinators, Athman Lali Omar and Ali Shariff, were both there and thrilled to see me, giving me all sorts of helpful tips on things I might do in Mombasa and Kisii, and some contacts I might look into. I also browsed through all the independent study projects that students have filed over the years, going back to 1990.

All of the old independent study projects

All of the old independent study projects

Only mine and one other person’s projects were related to linguistics, so there wasn’t as much there as I had hoped (the other project was studying Kenyan sign language though, which was neat to read).

My paper's still there!

My paper’s still there!

The school library was a great boon however, smaller in size than the archaeology library, but far better in quality of materials. I’ll need to make another trip there before I leave Mombasa. The one set of materials I’d really like to see though, if time permits before I leave Kenya, are the dissertations in the linguistics department at the University of Nairobi. There are likely to be several very useful things on Ekegusii there.

The next day, a fun cultural exchange happened. Kennedy, wanting to meet my homestay family and talk with them about my safety and plans for Kisii, was invited over to dinner at my family’s house. Now, Kennedy is Christian and from upcountry, while my homestay family is Muslim and from the coast – two very different cultures. Kennedy, though, was a great sport, treating the whole affair much like he treated going to America, where he knows the culture is different, and so open to trying new things. It wound up being great fun. While my family typically eats at the kitchen table, for large gatherings or for special guests they put down mats on the floor in the living room and all sit around that instead (I’m convinced the primary purpose for this is to make room for the dozens of different plates they put out, which would have never fit on the table).

The spread that my homestay family made for Kennedy

The spread that my homestay family made for Kennedy

Kennedy got a complete kick out of it, and noted that in the 30 years he’s lived in Mombasa, he had never eaten sitting on the floor like that.

Kennedy trys out eating while sitting on the floor for the first time

Kennedy trys out eating while sitting on the floor for the first time

I found out later that these weren’t the typical foods he’d eat at dinner either. Some of it was similar enough, mainly the rice dishes and beans, but otherwise it shared little resemblance with the kinds of dishes he’s been treating me to at his house this past week. I find it remarkable how different the coastal vs. inland cultures are here in East Africa. Even they treat each other as foreign cultures, I think largely due to the religious differences, and it tends to cause some political tensions between the two regions as well. I was slightly worried about this at dinner, but it turns out I had nothing to fear. Rukiya and Mchula were gracious hosts, and Kennedy had a fun time trying new dishes, and chatted happily with them for a long time. They discovered that Rukiya even works with his cousin! (Though what gets called a cousin here is pretty broadly interpreted.)

Since the shooting, I’ve still made the occasional outing, again accompanied with my homestay brothers, but only to limited places, general right near the house and away from tourist areas. After dinner on Sunday, Saidi and I went out for cocounts, which I hated last time I was here, but now I absolutely love. The coconut actually goes through a series of stages, all of which have Swahili names (and probably Ekegusii names too – I intend to find out!), but it’s the very first one, when they’re called dafu (pl. madafu), that they’re the best to eat and drink. For about a dollar, one of the street vendors will grab a fresh coconut, use a small machete (panga) to chop off the outer layers, and then in one neat whack, open up the top of the coconut just enough for drinking. You’re handed the coconut with the straw in it, and when you’re done drinking the coconut milk, you hand it back, and they’ll scrape down the inside of it to get all the delicious coconut meat from the inside. They take one of the outer pieces of the coconut and quickly carve it into a spoon so you can scoop up all the coconut meat inside. All the while you get to sit on the sidewalk and chat with people and generally enjoy yourself.

The following day was officially Eid, the end of the month of fasting for Ramadhan, so my entire family was out visiting neighbors throughout the day, eating small bits of food at each place as they went.

The house all decorated for Eid

The house all decorated for Eid

This meant that nobody was preparing dinner at home, and so it was one of the very rare days when the children were expected to fend for themselves. So for dinner Saidi and I went out to a little outdoor place with communal seating called Mubin’s Cafe. Outside was a big grill, where they were serving up meat kabobs, chicken tikka, and tandoori bread.

The outdoor grill at Mubin's

The outdoor grill at Mubin’s

The service was exceptionally terrible (Saidi was thoroughly irritated with the waiter by the time we left), but the food exceptionally good.

Saidi and I's meal at Mubin's

Saidi and I’s meal at Mubin’s

The following night, too, Saidi, Fadhil, Arafat and I all went out for pizza, since this is something Saidi had always wanted to do (I voted for one of the local Swahili cafes, but the brothers won out). Again, terrible service (two hour wait for three pizzas!!), but surprisingly good pizza.

Grabbing pizza at the Pizza Inn

Grabbing pizza at the Pizza Inn

Finally, last night we went out to grab a few chocolate bars – a rare treat – to bring back for the family and everybody enjoyed trying all the different flavors (no dark chocolate, sadly).

So while things haven’t been as exciting around town and I’ve mostly stayed holed up at Rukiya’s, we’ve still managed to have a little bit of fun without wandering far afield. The real excitement has been on the research end of things, working with Kennedy, but more about that in my next post.