Feb. 1, 1999
Volume 51, No. 18
Spitulnik keeps Bemba language alive on the web
Although Bemba is spoken by 5 to 6 million people in Zambia and bordering countries, much of the world's population has never even heard of the language--much less heard it spoken. In the future, however, Bemba may reach a wider audience, thanks to linguistic anthropologist Debra Spitulnik, who specializes in this African language.
Spitulnik, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, and David Charnon, the computer technical specialist for the department, recently developed a multimedia Internet site that's spreading both the words and the sounds of this language far beyond its customary geographic boundaries. This web site, located at <http://www. emory.edu/COLLEGE/ ANTHROPOLOGY/FACULTY/ANTDS/Bemba>, has downloadable audio files and was originally developed to accompany an article by Spitulnik that is being published in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology.
The article looks at the differences between rural and urban styles of the Bemba language. As Spitulnik explained, "The Bemba language has been changing in urban areas through interaction with the English language and because of the incredible multilingual environment in Zambian cities."
About 20 different languages and 73 different dialects are spoken in Zambia, and the average Zambian speaks three languages, she said. Although English is the country's official language, Bemba is one of seven other nationally recognized Zambian languages and is spoken by more than 50 percent of the population.
These web pages represent "a kind of long-term initiative to bring linguistic anthropology into the digital age," Spitulnik said. "I believe this is the first time that something like this has been done for a Zambian language." While there are a growing number of foreign language web sites with audio clips, only a handful of them are in African languages, and very few have accompanying texts that translate and contextualize the spoken words, she said.
In addition to her field work recordings, Spitulnik's web site includes a home page with a general introduction to the language of Bemba, plus a brief linguistic profile written in nontechnical terms. Spitulnik noted that much of her work has been done in collaboration with other Zambian scholars, including Maidstone Mulenga, who currently lives in Rochester, N.Y., and Mubanga Kashoki, the leading sociolinguist in Zambia, who co-authored the web page with the grammatical profile of Bemba.
Linguistic anthropologists often use recorded examples of naturally occurring speech in their classrooms and conference presentations to illustrate communicative practices and linguistic variation, Spitulnik said. "When it comes to publishing, however, the medium of sound-the sacred medium of most linguistic anthropologists--usually drops out of the picture," she added.
"The multimedia format of the web enables scholars and students alike to experience the richness of the human voice and the complexity of naturally occurring discourse in a way that the conventional, linear, black-and-white format of the printed page has only partially approximated." In addition, sites such as this can be used by a general audience of interested web users, she said, noting that "this is a wonderful way the web can be used for public scholarship."
Spitulnik has been conducting research in Zambia for more than 10 years. Much of her work has focused on "the role of state radio broadcasting and its implications for national identity and modernity," she said. In particular, she has been studying "the verbal art and national impact" of an extremely popular radio talk host, David Yumba.
In his show, "Kabuusha Taakolelwe Boowa"--translated as "the inquirer was not poisoned by a mushroom"--that aired for almost 30 years, Yumba advised and commented on listener's letters about a variety of subjects, ranging from marital infidelity to the nation's failing economy. The fieldwork recordings on Spitulnik's web site focus on the impact of both this program and Yumba's death.
Spitulnik recently received a University Teaching Fund grant to develop similar kinds of linguistic teaching materials for the Internet. In 1999 audio clips from other faculty research projects in linguistics and linguistic anthropology also will be uploaded to the department's web site.
Noting there is growing concern that the Internet is accelerating the dominance of the English language around the world, Spitulnik said, "My project shows there are unique ways in which the Internet can be used to give visibility to some of the world's less well-known languages."