CONTACT: MARY GERAGHTY
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0011; fax (319) 384-0024
UI linguist wins $185,000 NSF grant to study indigenous Indonesian
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
"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.