Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

Featured Linguist: Vicki Carstens

swahili diplomaMy interest in linguistics began at the age of 12 when my father, a high school band director, signed up for a two-year contract with a branch of AID called Teacher Education in East Africa. During a six-week summer orientation program at Columbia University, adults and children alike took Swahili classes. I still have a whimsical diploma from completing that course, signed by the youthful Sharifa Zawawi, who went on to write a number of books on the language including what was for many years the most widely used Swahili text in the US.


My dad was assigned to work at a teacher training college near the town of Nyeri, about 100 miles from Nairobi. We loved the time we spent there for many reasons. It led to lasting friendships with Kenyans and expatriates from far-flung countries. During the holidays we traveled all over East Africa, tenting in the vast park systems surrounded by teeming wildlife, and snorkeling the gorgeous coral reefs.

Carstens Safari


My brother and I experienced the novelty of British style schools with their uniforms and prefects. Swahili was an option alongside of French and Latin at Kenya High School. I had fallen in love with it so I was glad I could continue to study. African writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo and Chinua Achebe opened new worlds to me. Because this was soon after independence, there was a wonderfully optimistic vibe in the country. On the other hand, lingering inequities and prejudices of the colonial period were a vivid part of daily life; this gave me an awareness and interest in world affairs and social justice that animated my experiences and perceptions forever after.

Our Long Island home seemed very dull to me when we got back. I was a bit lost through junior high, high school, and especially early college. At last I took a year off and returned to Kenya to teach English and other subjects as a volunteer in rural schools. Though initially apprehensive about whether I would connect with the place again, I had an immensely gratifying and stimulating experience. My interest in Swahili rekindled. While settlers and expatriates spoke a pidgin sometimes called kitchen Swahili, I resolved to learn Kiswahili Sanifu, the grammatically exacting variety of native speakers. I traveled around with a group of Swahili vacationers my own age on the island of Lamu, sleeping on rooftops, attending the Maulid festival, studying the noun class system in my grammar book, enjoying and trying to learn to make the wonderful coastal curries of fresh seafood and coconut milk.

me on Lamu streetlamu roofs

When the year was over I realized that if I didn’t find a way to pursue my arcane interests I would never make it through a college degree. After some research I became one of three undergraduates in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of African Languages and Literature. What a relief to do college coursework in Swahili, Kikuyu, African literature, and in African oral narratives with the great Harold Schoeb! But right at the end, I also took a course in English transformational grammar that blew my mind completely. Could this really be how language worked, and I had been oblivious all this time? Could you write a transformational syntax for Swahili?

I left for Kenya after completing my BA and found a job teaching in an international school near Nakuru, overlooking the great Rift Valley. During this three-year stint I kept working at my Swahili. I also learned to scuba dive and worked as a volunteer counter of the waterbuck population in beautiful Lake Nakuru game park. Our school had an abundance of snakes and other reptiles which my partner and I took to collecting and housing. I loved the children I taught, who came from all over the world. It was exactly the experience I wanted at the time, but I knew that my next big step would be a graduate program in theoretical linguistics.

me with kids I taught

In 1983 I began my MA/PhD study at UCLA. After my first graduate level syntax courses with the incomparable Tim Stowell, I took a summer intensive Yoruba language course. The combination yielded a near-psychedelic summer learning experience. So much syntactic movement! Special pronouns for coreference! Why the funny particles near Infl in adjunct wh-questions? Didn’t this connect with work of Lasnik & Saito and Jim Huang on the ECP? I was hooked completely and wrote an MA thesis on Yoruba adjunct ECP effects. But after a few years I returned to my Bantuist roots, doing my 1991 dissertation on Swahili noun phrases and embarking on a series of attempts to give agreement theory the right combination of flexibility and constraints to accommodate Bantu, Romance, and English-type patterns. It was a goal which I didn’t feel I met until two publications in 2010 and 2011 freed me of it at last.

In recent years I have shifted into researching the syntax of Nguni languages. While at the University of Missouri I made a connection with Loyiso Mletshe of University of the Western Cape under the auspices of a wonderful sister school program between those two institutions, and this led me to connect with Jochen Zeller of University of Kwa Zulu Natal. My trips to Cape Town and Durban for field work have been highly rewarding, productive, and scenic, introducing me to a different part of the wonderful African continent.

Me on Table Mt Cape Town

East Africa is pulling me back now, through a collaborative NSF grant for Luyia documentation spearheaded by Michael Marlo, and through a Maasai word order project that grew out of a Field Methods course at MU. Here I am with my undergraduate research group in Lawrence Kansas to give talks at the 2014 Annual Conference on African Linguistics:


At Southern Illinois University Carbondale where I am currently chair of the Linguistics Department, I am working on a Senufo variety called Nafara with another group of Field Methods students.


SIU Lx Picnic PhotoI hope to continue this Nafara project in summer 2016 while teaching at the African Linguistics Summer School in Abidjan.


I feel very fortunate to have a professional life that I love so much.



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