Translation of Century-old French-Buyi Dictionary Dogged by Concerns over Political Correctness

Published in 1908, a rare dictionary of the Buyi language—Essai de dictionnaire dioi-français reproduisant la langueDictionnaire Français-Buyi parlée par les tribus Thai de la Haute rivière de l’Ouest (布法辞典)—compiled by two French missionaries (Joseph Esquirol & Gustave Williatte) has long been slated for translation into Chinese. Attempts were made to complete the project in the late 1970s and again in 1989, but according to a recent report published on the Institute of Ethnic Literature’s web site (布依文化百科全书), for “certain reasons” they were not successful.

According to Wikipedia, the Bùyī  “live in semi-tropical, high-altitude forests of Guizhou province, as well as in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, and speak a Tai language.”

The report doesn’t explicitly state the past or current obstacles to the dictionary’s translation and publication. One reason noted is the fact that it is written in “old French” (古法语), a somewhat bizarre claim given that 19th–century French is still quite understandable to your typical francophone.

Perhaps more insightful, in its own way, is this explanation offered by Guo Tangliang (郭堂亮), head editor at Guizhou Nationalities Publishing House (贵州民族出版社), who is taking part in the latest attempt to prepare this reference work’s first-ever appearance in Chinese (my translation):

. . .publishing the French-Buyi Dictionary is a big project and should be undertaken with a scientific and serious attitude. Since this book was created by French missionaries who had penetrated deeply into ethnic minority regions, the culture and customs of China’s Buyi people are seen through foreign eyes, and therefore evidence a certain bias. If it were directly translated, published and distributed, there would be issues related to matters such as its authorship, copyright and relationships between different ethnic groups.

Put bluntly, it looks like we can expect the final copy to be “edited” to ensure that we get an “unbiased” view of the Buyi and their language.

Interesting. I wonder: has the same sort of “editing” been done on classics like the still widely-consulted Kangxi Dictionary  (康熙字典)—compiled  in 1716 when foreigners (the Manchu), not the Han, ruled China?

“Follow Me in Dai!” Soon to be Published

Two textbooks aimed at pupils in Yunnan have been approved and will soon be published (傣文教材出炉): Dai Reader IV for Xishuangbanna Elementary School Students (西双版纳傣文小学教材第四册) and Follow Me in Dai! (跟我学傣文).  The Dai Reader consists of 30 texts, 19 traditonal Dai pieces and 11 translations (I assume from Chinese). Follow Me in Dai! will be available in digital format.

According to Wikipedia’s Dai People (傣族), there are approximately 1.2m Dai in the PRC, 134,000 in Laos and 145,000 in Thailand. Those in China mainly speak one of two dialects: Dailü or Dai Nüa, and both are part of the Tai language group that includes Thai, Lao and Zhuang. “Various dialects of the Tai/Dai language family are spoken from Assam India to Taiwan and Shanxi Province in the North to [Indonesia’s] Java in the south,” notes Wikipedia.

In fact, the term “Dai” has been used officially in China—replacing “Tai” or “Thai”—only since 1953. If the goal of this policy was to create the impression among the mainstream Han that Dai people, language and culture are unique to China, it has been fairly successful. Even in Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan, just a day’s bus ride from Xishuangbanna, most locals I meet are largely unaware that the Dai and their language are closely related to the country known as Thailand.

This reminds me of a visit I made to Kashgar in western Xinjiang near the ‘Stans (Uzbekistan, etc.). Linguists estimate that the language spoken by Xinjiang’s Uyghurs shares up to 70 percent of its vocabulary with modern Turkish, which isn’t surprising since both are Turkic tongues. But the young Uighurs I met in my brief stay there rejected the idea that their language or culture shares its roots with today’s Turkey. They appeared to be ignorant of any ties.

Tibetan, Daur, Evenki and Oroqen Databases Appraised by Experts

According to China’s Ministry of Education (数据库), several minority language projects underway during the current 12th Five-year Plan (2011-15) have been appraised and approved by experts. They are:

  • Database of Modern Tibetan Grammar Research (现代藏语语法信息辞典数据库研究)
  • Database of Daur, Evenki and Oroqen Voice Acoustic Parameters (达斡尔、鄂温克和鄂伦春语语音声学参数数据库)

Undertaken by the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社会科学院民族学与人类学研究所), applications for these databases include promotion of minority language education, language engineering research, and in the case of the Tibetan database, text annotation and machine translation. [Read more…]

China Ethnic Dictionary Project: Yunnan’s Lahu Next in Line

The compilation of a Chinese-Lahu dictionary officially began in Kunming on April 14, according to a report on the拉祜族邮票 Institute of Ethnic Literature site (编篡工作在昆明启动). Some 100 Lahu scholars met to discuss the reference book, scheduled for publication in 2015, that will comprise over two million words of text.

The Lāhù (拉祜族) are one of the 56 peoples recognized by the PRC. In China they number 475,000 and are concentrated within the Lancang River Basin in Yunnan Province around Pu’er and Lincang, but some 160,000 also inhabit Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. Experts believe the Lahu’s origins lie in the ancient nomadic Qiang people (羌人) of Gansu and Qinghai.

The China Ethnic Dictionary Project (中国少数民族大辞典) aims to compile 16 dictionaries. According to the report re-published by the Institute of Ethnic Literature, three have been completed (Bai, Hani and Naxi) and another two—for the Dai and Wa languages—will soon be.

Just how the dictionary will be formatted was not mentioned. However, the recently launched Miao-Han Dictionary (苗汉辞典) may well serve as a model. It featured:

  • Pronunciation using international phonetic alphabet (IPA)
  • Bilingual text
  • Sample sentences

Visit here for links to several Lahu films.

New Software for Yi, Zhuang, Tibetan, Uygur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz Applications

Xinhuanet reports (Minority Language Translation Software) that the China Ethnic Languages Translation Bureau has announced the development of several software programs for non-Han languages in China: 

These programs include electronic dictionaries for the characters of the Yi and Zhuang ethnic groups [彝文电子词典及辅助翻译软件 and 壮文电子词典及辅助翻译软件], a proofreading tool for the Zhuang ethnic language [壮文校对软件], and transcoding applications [编码转换软件] for the languages of the Tibetan, Uygur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicities, according to a statement released Friday by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission.

Mongolian Fluency Drops among Minority Students in Hulunbuir

“News 1 + 1,” a CCTV News Channel program, recently broadcast a show devoted to exploring the status of Mongolian fluency among students in Inner Mongolia. I didn’t watch it, but you can read the transcript in Chinese here: 如何用母语诉说?. The following piece is based on the transcript, with some of my own thoughts at the end.

As of 2011, all so-called elementary and junior high “ethnic schools” (民族学校) in Inner Mongolia reportedly receive government subsidies that ensure students go to school free of tuition, and also receive an allowance plus 3rmb daily for food.  Thus things do appear to be looking up, and Hulun Elementary School located in urban Hailar has seen the number of its pupils rise from 256 in 2008 to 588 this year.

But reporter Bai Yansong, himself an ethnic Mongolian who works for Hulunbuir TV, points out that the larger trend is  more worrisome: his grandfather spoke only Mongolian; his father both Han and Mongolian, as he was the first college graduate in the family;  Bai Yansong can speak and understand some, but can’t actually host the TV show in Mongolian; and his son doesn’t know a word. [Read more…]

Miao-Han Dictionary to Launch within 2011

Update: As of mid-June 2012, this dictionary has reportedly been published by the Nationalities Publishing House of Yunnan (云南民族出版社)

Chinanews.com reports (云南禄劝将出版《苗汉词典》) that a new bilingual reference book, the Miao-Han Dictionary (苗汉辞典), will be published by year-end 2011. Compilation began in 1996 and has been carried out by an editing committee of 45. It will include:

  • Pronunciations listed in international phonetic alphabet (IPA)
  • Sample sentences
  • Bilingual text (Miao and Han)
  • Over 20,000 entries with 410,000 words of text
Known variously as the Miáo (苗族), Hmong and Maewe, it is recognized as one of the 56 ethnic groups in the PRC. Within China, the Miao are located mainly in Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan and Hunan, and outside China in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. For background on the language itself, see here. The news item did not state the name of the publisher, but notes that this project is managed by the Luquan Yi and Miao Autonomous County of Yunnan Province  (云南省禄劝彝族苗族自治县).

Rejuvenating the Tujia Language No Easy Feat

A journalist’s recent visit with primary school teacher and Tujia scholar Chu Yongming (储永明在课间与孩子们进行土家与对话) highlights a man with a mission—to ensure that the next generation of Tujia have the tools they need to speak the language of their people.

Working out of a primary school in Hubei’s Feng county, the 59-year-old has taken part in compiling two published works for language instruction (<土家语“原生态”土家语言校本教材> and <土家语言>), and is in the middle of editing a Dictionary of the Tujia Language (土家语辞典).

A few factoids re: the present state of the Tujia language cited in the article:

  • 7.38m: Number of Tujia people in the PRC
  • 50,000:  Number of Tujia who can actually speak the language
  • Distribution: Tujia are concentrated in Hubei, Guizhou, Chongqing and Sichuan

For a 2012 update on Chu Yongming’s activities, see 大山深处的土家语传承与坚守 .

Manchurian: 10 Million Manchus, A Handful of Native Speakers

The language of the last imperial dynasty to rule China, a Tungusic tongue called Manchurian (满洲话), will soon be accessible only in dictionaries. Verna Yu reports for the South China Morning Post from Sanjiazi village, Heilongjiang, in A Language Lost:

When Ji Jinlu , 66, was a boy, he was unable to speak Putonghua until he went to school at age nine. Today he has hardly anyone to talk to in his native tongue.

Ji is an ethnic Manchu – a descendant of a nomadic tribe from northeastern China that became the imperial rulers of the country for more than 250 years. He is one of fewer than 100 remaining Manchus with a working grasp of the language. 

Like most remaining speakers, Ji’s native tongue has become rather rusty over the years as most people in his village, including his children and grandchildren, are unable to speak it.

“Even if you speak Manchu with them they don’t understand,” said Ji, a farmer born and bred in remote Sanjiazi village in Heilongjiang province, where farmers grow rice and keep dairy cattle. “And they don’t want to learn anyway.”

Although there are more than 10 million people in China who are classified as ethnic Manchus – most of whom live in Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin in the northeast – linguists say that Sanjiazi is the last Manchu-speaking community in China.

[Read more…]

Phags-pa Script: Tibetan Links to Kublai Khan’s Unified Script for his Empire

A volume devoted to a Yuan Dynasty script inspired by written Tibetan, Collection of Phags-pa Inscriptions and Annotations (八思巴文碑刻文物集释), will soon be launched. Editor Cai Meibiao (蔡美彪) says the book gathers some 60 years of scholarship.

Chinanews.com has published interviews with two scholars who have spent years studying the script.

Kublai Khan commissioned the creation of a unified script for the vast Mongolian-controlled, multilingual Empire of the Great Khan (1271-1368), known in China as the Yuan Dynasty. To do the Khan’s bidding, Tibetan Lama Drogön Chögyal Phagpa extended his native Tibetan script to encompass the sounds of the empire’s disparate languages such as Turkic, Mongol, Chinese and Tibetan. Now dubbed the “Phags-pa script,” it consisted of 38 letters written vertically. Experts classify it an abugida, i.e., a segmental writing system based on consonants wherein vowel notation is obligatory but secondary, in contrast to European languages where vowels and consonants have equal status.

The Phags-pa script (八思巴文, or 蒙古新字) was never widely accepted and fell into disuse with the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. But scholars such as Gary Ledyard believe that the hangul alphabet, Korea’s national language, may have links to the alphasyllabary. Significantly, the script also provides linguistic clues about the evolution of Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian during the Yuan era.

Perhaps surprisingly, many extant examples of the writing are to be found in traditionally Tibetan regions. “The Phags-pa script was once the official written language of the Yuan Dynasty,” says scholar Wuli Jibaiyila (乌力吉白乙拉), “and for that reason there should be many written records, but they simply haven’t been uncovered yet.

“But there are many Phags-pa relics among the people and in temples in the Tibetan region, particularly variant forms, many of which contain errors. Among temples, inscriptions at the Potala Palace are the best preserved, but they can’t be photographed so I haven’t been able to put them in order. Since Phags-pa [the script’s Tibetan creator] himself was the fifth-generation founder of the Sakya Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Phags-pa script was passed down within Tibetan areas, and continued to be used particularly as a form of Tibetan calligraphy.”