Living in the west African country of Burkina Faso, U-M Linguistics student Anthony Struthers-Young is on a cultural mission: he’s working to document three varieties of Toussian, a language spoken in a wide area to the south and southwest of Bobo Dioulasso, the country’s second-largest city.

In the process, Anthony has found a lot to love about the small, landlocked country.

“Burkina Faso has been wonderful,” writes Anthony. “It’s beautiful here, and the people are incredibly kind. I spent a week in Djigouera, and it was so humbling to see that they appreciated the work I am doing and were happy to have someone working on documenting their language.”

Under the direction of Linguistics Professor Jeffrey Heath, Anthony is working to document both Northern and Southern Toussian. Anthony says the languages are in “dire need of description,” having had only one short sketch completed previously by another researcher. 

Moving Parts

To accomplish his goal, Anthony works with two speakers of Northern Toussian and one speaker of Southern Toussian. He meets regularly with his three speaking companions, or consultants, all of whom originally came from the outlying villages of Djigouera, Kourinion, and  Wempéa. Two of the speakers are university students and one is a high school teacher.

Anthony communicates with his consultants in French, the national language. In addition to speaking French, he explains, most people in Burkina Faso also speak the language of their village (or their parents) as well as Jula, a trade language used widely in south and west Burkina.

Armed with a laptop and digital recorder, Anthony meets with his speaking consultants to not only learn the Toussian language but to write down everything he learns.

“A language is a big puzzle, with a ton of moving parts,” he says. “Documentation is the slow process of teasing apart each of those parts and dissecting them.”

The Value of Hearing Pitch

The language documentation work is detailed and difficult, but studying the Toussian language demands yet another skill from the young linguist: the ability to hear pitch.

“I’m not tone-deaf,” writes Anthony, “which would have been catastrophic.”

That’s because Toussian is a tonal language. This means that lexical or grammatical information is encoded by the pitch of the word.

Anthony explains it this way: “You can have two words that are different only by their pitch. Hearing pitch, for many, is difficult. I’m no different, and it took one to two months before I really felt like I could confidently hear tone. If you can’t hear the tones of a tonal language, you can’t accurately describe the language.”

Phonology is also complicated, he adds: “In Toussian, you’ve got oral vowels, glottalized vowels, nasal vowels, vowel reduction, and a lot of allophony, which makes doing the phonology tricky.”

Despite the challenges, says Anthony, there’s a lot to envy about the work he does. “Ultimately I’m a linguistics student because linguistics fascinates me, and every day I get to apply more of my knowledge and learn new things and solve new problems.”

His goals include writing a grammar and lexicon of Northern Toussian so that by the end of his work, Anthony hopes to have a several-hundred-page grammar and a lexicon of several thousand words published.

The work can be daunting, but Anthony says it’s vital to preserving cultural heritage and he’s fortunate to have the opportunity:

“There’s not too many jobs where you get to say that the work is truly fascinating and engaging, you get to contribute to science and the sum of human knowledge, and you get to preserve the cultural heritage of a group of people who, sadly, have not gotten the attention they deserve. I’m incredibly fortunate with my chance to do this.”