Background to the ProjectThe Languages of Tanzania Project (LOT) is a research endeavour conceived in the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics (FLL) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) of the University of Dar-es-Salaam (UDSM). The project is funded by SIDA/SAREC/UDSM and has two major objectives. First, it seeks to produce a language atlas showing the geographical location of the languages of Tanzania, number of speakers for each language, and the genetic classification. Second, the project will produce a series of descriptive studies that will document the grammar and vocabulary of the languages spoken in Tanzania, excluding Kiswahili.
The project seeks to produce a body of information that will form the backbone of a Tanzanian languages archive. The archive will constitute a formidable database and springboard for further research in linguistic theory and language development.
Documenting the languages of Tanzania is of critical importance. As in all other fields of study, documentation places the relevant material on the scholastic map and draws the attention of current and future scholars to its existence. Documentation preserves the material for future study and reference. At the moment, very little is known about the history and development of the languages spoken in Tanzania today primarily because there are no written records.
Given the level of technology at the disposal of humanity, it should be possible to preserve a spoken and written record of these languages. Such a record would give future generations tremendous advantages as they try to understand the phenomenon of language change. It would also help them to understand the cultures and identities associated with each language group before and after any linguistic changes. The forces at work in the Tanzanian sociolinguistic arena today promise to alter the linguistic map in a relatively short span (perhaps a century). Studies have indicated that ethnic community languages are threatened with extinction at a much faster pace.
Committing Tanzanian languages to writing makes them more readily accessible to scholars interested in historical and comparative linguistics so that information from these languages can enrich our understanding of language change. Also of equal significance, is the potential contribution of African (Tanzanian) language structures in the development of linguistic theory. Whether it be in the generativist search for Universal Grammar or in the Greenbergian search for cross-linguistic generalisations, the importance of data from a variety of languages cannot be overestimated. The development of Lexical Functional Grammar, for instance, has benefited greatly from the study of African language structures.
The ethnic community languages of Tanzania survive mainly in the rural homes where they are spoken. But in the public domain, they are effectively ostracised. Thus, their use is excluded in education (e.g. all functional literacy materials in the 1970s were in Kiswahili) and at political rallies and religious functions; they cannot legally be used by any radio or television station, and there are no newspapers published in any one such language. The general political context discourages the use of the ethnic community languages in favour of Kiswahili. Their use is seen as a retrogressive step undermining national unity. In the national population census there are no questions regarding languages spoken or ethnic affiliation. In such a context of official neglect and outright hostility, detailed information regarding these languages needs to be obtained by careful linguistic study. Also the preservation of samples of linguistic material as part of the people's cultural heritage must be deliberately planned and effected since no such samples will be preserved as a matter of course. In addition, while there exists an Institute for Kiswahili Research, there does not exist even a token fund/organ for research in the ethnic community languages.
The documentation of the languages of Tanzania will fill an acknowledged gap. The project is expected to provide more reliable and up to date information on these languages. This information will be made readily accessible to scholars; it is such information that is made use of in the study of the nature of language (linguistic theory), language change, and language preservation. In a broader perspective, the documentation of language is a major contribution to the preservation of a people's cultural heritage.