Studying a Southeast Asian language spoken by less than 300,000 people worldwide has earned a doctoral student in linguistics a sizable grant and a chance to help preserve a culture halfway across the globe.
Josh Jensen, a PhD student in the Department of Linguistics and TESOL, was recently awarded a $10,600 grant from the National Science Foundation to finish his dissertation research on Jarai, an Austronesian language spoken mostly in Vietnam and northeast Cambodia. The language, which is markedly different than those spoken in the East Asian region, is thought to be known only by 275,000 people in the area and a few thousand in the United States.
“Most languages have morphological complexity,” said Jensen, “where one word is made up of more than one morpheme [like ‘dog’ and ‘-s’ combined to make the plural, ‘dogs.’] Jarai doesn’t have that sort of thing. The word is the word. It’s unusual for an Austronesian language.”
Jensen’s research will focus on two main areas: the grammatical structure sometimes called the “serial verb construction” and word order. The first issue is when a clause has two or more verbs but no coordination or subordination. In Jarai, a speaker might say “I shot killed the bird,” which in English would mean “I shot the bird dead.” Jensen said he is curious as to why languages like Jarai can make extensive use of this grammatical structure while languages like English cannot. The second issue looks at how several Austronesian languages find the verb before the subject. In Jarai, however, there is a subject-verb-object word order. Jensen said he will investigate the underlying relationship between Jarai and others in the Austronesian language family.
“What’s interesting is that Jarai speakers don’t seem to transfer that aspect of their language to English,” he said. “Although their language uses serial verb constructions quite extensively, I haven’t noticed that they transfer this when they start learning English.”
Part of the NSF grant will go toward travel expenses for interviews and field study. Nearly 3,000 Jarai speakers live in North Carolina and about a hundred live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Jensen said his relationship with Texas Tech University anthropology instructor Lap Siu will enable him to get inside Jarai communities in the U.S. to more fully document the language.
“Perhaps the most important aspect of his research is that Josh is studying a minority language,” said Dr. Joey Sabbagh, assistant professor and Jensen’s advisor. “We’re at a time in linguistics when, for the past 40 or 50 years, study has been dominated by majority languages like English or Japanese. Josh is studying a language that has almost no documentation. For linguistics to continue thriving, we need to be studying lesser-known languages.”
A secondary goal — albeit an important one, Jensen said — is to create additional language materials and record Jarai stories for immigrants and their children. It’s an example of how the linguistics program at UT Arlington adds a level of service to academic study.
“In our department, there’s an emphasis on investing back into the community you’re working with,” he said. “I’d like to help preserve the [Jarai] culture for the kids born here and growing up in America. One of my explicit goals is to gather text and stories from the community and make those resources available to them to preserve their culture and their language.”