Kunama: Keeping a language alive in my free time

A Kunama man near Barentu, Zoba Gash-Barka, Er...
A Kunama man near Barentu, Zoba Gash-Barka, Eritrea. photographer: Temesgen Woldezion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who is a native speaker of the Kunama language.  The Kunama people traditionally live along the border of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Since the war started between these countries, the Kunama community are experiencing a grim fate, and many have left their traditional lands as refugees, and many refugees have expatriated abroad.  In this post I would like to focus not on politics, but on the question of what I can do to help the Kunama language.

The language fascinates me.  It is a “linguistic isolate,” which means that it’s not related to any other language.  (Another example of a more well known linguistic isolate is Basque, spoken in northern Spain and France.)  Some linguists have proposed that it belongs to a group called Nilo-Saharan, but others dispute whether this constitutes a true linguistic group.  In other words, some people believe that Kunama is related to other languages, but no one can prove it.

Looking at the numbers, I wonder if the Kunama language could disappear in the near future.  I found a source that estimated Kunama speakers currently at about 140,000.  I would like to know how many of them are monolingual, as every one that I met speak at least four languages.  With the pressure to move out of their land, they assimilate more to Eritrean and Ethiopian cultures, and those who move abroad experience even more pressure.  My friend’s niece and nephew, for example, who came over to the US as young teenagers, speak little Kunama  and speak Tigrinye more often to their relatives.  Their children will most likely not speak any Kunama.

Could I help to document this language?  I know this is an odd question; it seemed odd to me, too, at first, but then I saw that it makes some sense for me to do so.  When I first fell in love with languages, the obscure always struck my fancy.  That’s why I adored Ukrainian, Moroccan Arabic, and Syriac.  When I was 14 and reading about what linguists do, I learned about anthropological linguists who live among exotic peoples and study their language.  In college, I even took a “field methods” class on how to document and describe languages among native speakers.  A few years ago, I was having coffee with my old linguistics professor from college, and he challenged me to do some work on Kunama, since so few people had done so.  So it actually isn’t my idea originally!

Funny enough, I happen to be well situated geographically to work on Kunama.  Significantly, my friend lives in Denver, my home town, so doing “field work” there would not be expensive.  Also, the big annual Kunama festival takes place in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is one state away. (In case you are wondering,  “Why in South Dakota?” I heard South Dakota has the largest population of Kunama because many of the refugees work in the meat-packing industry.)

Practically speaking, though, it would be difficult.  I have a job, I want to teach, too, and I have a family–how could I find time to document this obscure language?  It certainly wouldn’t pay me anything to do so.  (Unless one of my dear readers knows something I don’t . . .)

Does anyone have ideas on how to document a minority language in one’s spare time?