Startseite der Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung Humboldt Kosmos Startseite
H U M B O L D T I A N E R - P O R T R Ä T


Language Studies in the Village

The linguist Zelealem Leyew

Dieser Artikel in Deutsch

Zelealem Leyew

How does a farmer in the southwestern border region of Ethiopia indicate that he owns a hundred or more chickens, when the numbers of his native language only go up to ten or twenty? Zelealem Leyew reaches next to his computer and pulls out a long thin twig. He breaks off two small pieces and lays them on his desk in the Institute for African Studies at the University of Cologne: "This indicates the number forty." Or he takes the telephone cord and ties two knots with it. That, too, is a way to count to 100 or more. Zelealem Leyew is not a mathematician; rather, languages are his domain. Specifically, he explores languages that have never been studied, especially those that are in danger of dying out. As part of his studies, he gains insight into the ways in which people count in various languages. During his research stay at the University of Cologne, the Humboldt Research Fellow is concentrating on this particular aspect of language.

The 38-year-old linguist from Addis Ababa sits in his first-floor office on Meister Ekkehart Street, surrounded by books. He looks out at the trees in their fall foliage. But in his thoughts, Zelealem Leyew is many thousand kilometers to the south. He points to a book cover, which shows a graphic of the language borders within Africa. "I am studying the languages from two of the four major language families on the continent: the Afro-Asiatic and the Nilo-Saharan languages, which are also spoken in Ethiopia."

Counting with hands and feet

First and foremost, he is investigating the number systems of the two language families. "Counting is a universal phenomenon, but how people count-that is highly diverse." The linguist emphasizes his words, and his enthusiasm for the topic is evident in his voice. The Botocudo people in Brazil, for example, make do with the quantities "one" and "many." Another people in Tasmania, the Port Essington, have the number system: 1, 2, 1+2 and many. The South American people, the Guana, have the system: 1, 2, 3, 4 and many. In most of the Nilo-Saharan languages, people count with the help of their body parts. "A person represents the number 20-ten fingers and ten toes. A single hand indicates five," explains the scholar. In order to calculate into the hundreds, the people also use pebbles, small sticks, twigs, cable or rope. "In some African languages, it is possible to count only to 100, and rarely to 1000. The circumstances of life and culture have shaped the understanding of numbers and the concept of quantities in this manner." Zelealem Leyew recalls the path breaking studies of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander von Humboldt's brother, on the reciprocal relationship between language and culture. American linguists have further developed these ideas in their own theories. "Language changes constantly and always in connection to changing life circumstances. People find new words when they need them. There is no intellectual limitation to this." By the same token, number systems can be expanded when the need arises. "My mother, who is now 75 years old, does not know a word for the number 'million.' She does not use such large numbers because she has never needed them," says Zelealem Leyew.

No research in a vacuum

The linguistic examination of number systems has implications for native language education. In ethnically diverse Ethiopia, with around 80 languages, that is a very current topic. Only when schoolchildren understand the origin and history of words, can they begin to understand more abstract terms, according to the researcher. For example, when pupils understand why a person represents the number 20, they are introduced to the concept of quantities. This creates a starting point for introducing higher numbers and abstract systems.

Zelealem Leyew does not conduct research in a vacuum or for the sake of the bookshelf. The application of research results plays an important role. At his home university, Addis Ababa University, he works on dictionaries, grammar books, and teaching materials for teachers and pupils of various languages. He is also involved in teacher education. "Education in the native language is indispensable, because the children understand things much more thoroughly and can delve into them more deeply," emphasizes the linguist. In addition, this education helps to keep a language alive.

Of the approximately 6000 languages worldwide, only about five to ten percent can be considered "healthy." "Healthy" means that they are mutable and adaptable and that they are handed down from one generation to the next. If this transfer is inhibited or stalled, the language is threatened. "Clearly you cannot and should not try to force people to speak and maintain their native language. Against the will of the people, that will not work. But we should at least document these dying languages. Otherwise, valuable and historic testimonials will be lost forever." Zelealem Leyew is very motivated and focused. The survival of languages through documentation drives his efforts. And time is of the essence: "We have a lot to do, because many languages have not been written down."

Return to the Rhine

While working on his dissertation, he spent 18 months in a village in which Kemantney is spoken-a language that is slowly disappearing. 172,000 people belong to the Kemant ethnic group, but only 1,625 of them actually speak the Kemantney language. The youngest villager who speaks Kemantney and who was interviewed by the researcher was already over 40 years old. "I lived with the people for awhile in order to understand the meaning of the words and their usage in daily contexts." How do people talk at the marketplace, in court, or at a wedding? Zelealem Leyew documented the language and compared the language usage or descriptions of one villager with those of another. "The older people were especially competent conversation partners," the researcher concludes. In addition to working with comparisons, he also looked at phonetics, morphology, and syntax.

In 1998 the Ethiopian returned from his field studies in the countryside to the capital-bringing with him a wealth of data. He did the evaluation of the data in Cologne. There he had access to modern literature in the discipline, and he valued the scholarly exchange with renowned professors. "I learned a great deal from the professors, and the colleagues were-and are-very helpful." He spent two years in the city on the Rhine and wrote his dissertation. In 2002 he returned to the familiar Rhine region, thanks to a Humboldt Research Fellowship. Scholarly and collegial connections between Cologne and Addis Ababa have existed for a long time and make for a lively exchange. The Ethiopian is also collaborating with linguists in Mainz, Hamburg, Leipzig, and Berlin. In three years, he will welcome many of them-as well as colleagues from around the world-to his homeland. The Fourth World Congress of African Linguistics, which met in the United States in the summer of 2003, decided to hold its next conference in Addis Ababa in 2006. Zelealem Leyew and his colleagues will take on the organization of the conference-a challenge that he is already anticipating.

The researcher spends a lot of time in the Cologne Institute; he can be seen there often on weekends as well. The reason: his enthusiasm for his work. "It is quiet then and I can read articles or conduct research on the Internet." He has flown home just once so far, because he missed his family, his wife and two children. His wife works for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and his daughter recently started school. When he feels homesick from time to time, he indulges himself with a visit to an Ethiopian restaurant in Cologne.

Uschi Heidel (translated by Susanne Wunner)28.04.2004

 zum Seitenanfang

Zelealem Leyew Temesgen (38)
  • Born in Fenote-Selam, Gojjam, Ethiopia
  • Studied linguistics at Addis Ababa University
  • Received a Ph.D. in linguistics at Addis Ababa University
  • Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation
  • Previously: Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, Addis Ababa University

Zebrafish never come singly: The husband and wife researchers Mary Mullins and Michael Granato  weiter >>

From Periphery to Cusp: The cell biologist Felix Engel  weiter >>

Virtual molecules for real medicines: The pharmacist Outi Salo-Ahen  weiter >>

At the hub of intellectual property: The judge Jian Li  weiter >>

In the Maternity Room of the Stars: The astrophysicist Bérengère Parise  weiter >>

Peepholes into the Earth's past: The geologist Yamirka Rojas-Agramonte  weiter >>

Optimally wound: The engineering scientist and mathematician Yordan Kyosev  weiter >>

>> All the Portraits >>