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Summer Snapshot: Alex Samuels '15 Studies the Role of Tone in an African Language

About Summer Research

To learn more about the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and to read more entries in our "Summer Snapshot" series, visit our SURP website.

This is one in a series looking in on the work and projects Pomona students are carrying out this summer.

Project summary:
Right now we’re working with a native speaker to analyze the way tone works in Maragoli, a tonal language spoken in Western Kenya. I’m also doing two other projects. The first one is cutting up some sound files of Maragoli that were collected in Field Methods this past semester. I have hour and a half long sessions and I’m cutting them into five-second individual words. I’m processing those sound files, which will eventually be turned into a dictionary. The other thing I’m working on is for Professor Mike Diercks, who went on a research trip to Kenya this past semester and got four hours of stories from people. I have all of these stories in Maragoli that I am translating to English. They are probably going to be turned into a book of texts, which we can then give back to the community.

What is your mentor like?
My mentor is Professor Mary Paster. I’m working with her because I like her a lot. She’s also the only phonologist in the Linguistics and Cognitive Science Department, and I’m interested in phonology.

Why is the potential impact of the research you’re doing?
The importance of what I’m doing is moving toward a more complete look at language and universal ideas of what language is. Tone is one of the things that acts differently in different languages. It’s not explainable via the normal ways we explain sound changes. The idea is that if we can explain tone, it should help us explain in a better way other aspects of how language works. That’s the goal of my project: trying to explain how tone works in the Maragoli language. It’s probably not going to happen because I have only eight weeks to do this, and there are people who have been doing this kind of work on other languages for their entire lives. But anything we uncover will be helpful.

Why are you doing summer research?
I just love studying linguistics. The fun part is having a ton of disorganized information and then pulling patterns out of it. I like patterns. I like finding them. I like using them in a productive way in order to find other things. That’s why I like linguistics: it’s all patterns. It’s so fun figuring out what those patterns are, because you’ll look down at a word list and go, “There’s nothing going on here.” But then you realize: “Wait! There are no s’s next to e’s! I wonder why that is.” And then you look more at these areas of linguistic interest and they lead into further research.

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