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Professor Laura Downing is awarded NIAS-fellowship

News: May 25, 2020

Laura Downing, Professor, African Languages–This means that in the long term, I will have the opportunity to compile a database that makes it easier to do research on consonant phoneme systems in African languages, Laura says.

What are you receiving?
–I have been awarded a fellowship for a stay at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS-KNAW) in Amsterdam. The fellowship supports a sabbatical project entitled, “Investigating how laryngeal contrasts shape consonant phoneme inventories.” The goal of the project is to document laryngeal contrasts (like that between the first sound in tug vs dug) for a large sample of African languages and relate the results to current theoretical and typological claims about possible phoneme systems.

What does it mean for you to receive this scholarship?
–The NIAS scholarship gives me the opportunity to work on my project for seven months of the 2020/21 academic year, starting on August 31, 2020. I was selected through an external review process based on the quality of the research proposal and its innovative value. Together with about sixty researchers, artists and writers, I become part of a carefully selected group. Only ten percent of NIAS scholarship applications are accepted for funding.

How does the project relate to your ongoing research?
–My research since 1990 dissertation has addressed most areas in the phonology of Bantu languages. The sabbatical funding allows me to expand my recent work on the laryngeal quality of stops in nasal-stop sequences in Bantu languages. I have also studied pitch changes, stressed and unstressed syllables as well as prosody in Chichewa, Tumbuka and other Bantu languages. This research has made me aware of how little information is easily available to address theoretical and typological questions about possible consonant phoneme systems in African languages. The Fellowship will allow me to compile an extensive database that will form the basis for a publication presenting the results of the project.

How do you think about your upcoming stay?
–I will be living and working in the centre of Amsterdam, and I am looking forward to that. I also have colleagues at Leiden University and the University of Amsterdam that I’ll be talking to about my project. Some of them are retired field linguists for African languages. I am sure they know more than they have written down about the languages they have worked on, and I’m looking forward to learning from them.


NIAS – one of the institutes of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) –provides a physical and intellectual space for advanced research in the humanities and social sciences that is driven by curiosity and cross-discipline collaboration. It offers temporary fellowships to international and Dutch scholars. NIAS is located in Amsterdam.
In addition to the NIAS Fellowship, Laura has obtained Wenner-Gren complementary sabbatical financing towards her project.

Read more about NIAS-KNAW
Read more about
Laura Downing at NIAS-KNAW



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