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UI linguist wins $185,000 NSF grant to study indigenous Indonesian language

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A University of Iowa linguistics professor has won a nearly $185,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to create the first English-language description of the syntax of Madurese, an Indonesian language spoken by more than 13.5 million people.

William Davies, chairman of the UI linguistics department, will study the Madurese language with native speakers to create a descriptive grammar, which will give linguists, anthropologists and other Westerners closer access to an indigenous Indonesian language and culture that has not been easily accessible before. During the three-year project Davies will conduct research in both Indonesia and Iowa.

The language is native to the island of Madura and a few other islands in central Indonesia, although the majority of speakers now live in east Java, the main island of Indonesia. Despite the size of the native speaking population and the fact that Madurese is the third largest regional language of Indonesia, very little work has been done to record and study its syntax. What little has been done is not readily available to Western scholars, Davies said. He plans to publish his work both in book form and on CD-ROM.

Although it may seem a remote area of study to most Westerners, Madurese is actually spoken by a greater number of people than speak Bulgarian, Czech, Greek, or Swedish ­ all languages that Western scholars have studied extensively.

"When I first started studying Madurese in 1995, I was amazed to find that there was so little literature available and even less information available in English," Davies said. But that only encouraged him to continue looking for answers to the linguistic questions the language raised in his mind.

"What I love to do is go out and work with speakers to learn as much as I possibly can," Davies said. "You can't always find precisely what you're looking for in older descriptions. Advances in linguistic theory have changed some of the questions we want to address."

Davies said that his work on Madurese would contribute to the wider linguistic efforts to create theories that can be applied to all human language. He said that studying Madurese ­ a language spoken by a significant number of people yet not spoken or understood by many scholars ­ provides an excellent opportunity to add to the breadth of the field of linguistics.

"In order to truly develop a theory of language sufficiently elaborate to characterize the diversity of human languages yet sufficiently restrictive to preclude unattested languages, it is necessary to examine data from a wider variety of languages." Davies said. "Data from languages like Madurese must fully enter the discussion for this goal to be achieved."

In addition to his work on Madurese, Davies has studied Javanese for the last 10 years and expects this background to aid in his current research. The descriptive grammar of Madurese syntax Davies will write based on his three-year research project is not the type of grammar "textbook" familiar to those who have studied English or any other language in an attempt to learn to speak or write the language. Rather it will be a detailed account of the language's morphology (structure and forms of words) and sentence structure. Such details will allow linguists to compare the language to others and identify basic similarities and differences.

The Madurese grammar will be the second grammar Davies has written. His first was a description of the sentence structure of Choctaw, an American Indian language of Oklahoma and Mississippi.