Minority Language Big Dictionary Project: Linguistic Reference Tools, Encyclopedias or Vaporware?

As of early May 2014, China has published its first Wa-Mandarin dictionary, according to a report by China Nationalities Newspaper republished at Chinawriter.cn (佤汉大辞典问世).

According to Wikipedia, the Wa (佤族) reside mainly in Burma (800,000), China’s Yunnan (400,000) and Thailand (10,000). Like many of the peoples in China’s border areas, they had no widely used indigenous script prior to 1949; a Romanized script was officially proposed in 1956 but apparently never popularized, while the use of scripts used by Wa outside China has not been promoted either.

This effectively means that peoples like the Wa couldn’t read or write in their own language before 1949, and precious little has been done to change that in the 65 years since. (Meanwhile, read what one lone school teacher is doing to Rejuvenate the Tujia Language.)

The press release states that the “Big Wa-Mandarin Dictionary” contains almost 30,000 entries of Wa words, phrases and idioms spelled according to the Barao dialect. It also features information about Wa history and culture. It doesn’t say how the sounds were expressed, but I’d assume the 1956 official romanization system has been used.

The Wa dictionary is the latest entry from Yunnan in a national undertaking, the “Minority Language Big Dictionary Series” (中国少数民族大词典系列), that aims to publish one “big dictionary” for each of China’s official 55 non-Han nationalities. The authorities in Yunnan are charged with compiling 16 of them, and at various times over the last 3 years, I have seen reports that those for the Bai (白族), Naxi (纳西族) and Hani (哈尼族) have been duly completed on schedule.

You may have noticed that I have not provided a picture of the new Wa dictionary, or provided a hyperlink to it on an online bookstore. That’s because none of the news items showed the physical book, and I can’t find out online where it can be bought or even . . . who publishes it. The Naxi dictionary is reportedly published by Guangxi Nationalities Press (广西民族出版社) , but I’ve also had trouble locating it online.

In case you are wondering why this matters, consider these factoids based on China’s own media reports in 2012 (full text):

  • Non-han languages: 55 officially designated “peoples” (民族) speak an estimated 130 languages
  • Scripts in use: 40, including Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Korean, Yi, Dai, Lahu, Jingpo and Xibe
  • Populations: one-half of non-Han languages are spoken by groups that number under 10,000 members, of which 20+ have 1,000 speakers or less
  • Endangered languages: Manchu, Tatar, She, Hezhen can no longer be used for conversation; another 20 percent, such as Nu, Yilao, Pumi and Jinuo are approaching that state; and a total of 40 percent are in danger of extinction in the mid-term.
  • Manchu: 11 million ethnic Manchus, but only 100 or so can speak fluently and less than a dozen read and write well.

In brief, many of China’s minority languages are under threat, and therefore practical reference tools and language textbooks are urgently needed to ensure better literacy in these languages among both native speakers and Mandarin speakers tasked with helping to document the culture and history of these ethnic groups for future generations.

One dictionary that does sound like a model for others is the Miao-Han Dictionary (苗汉辞典) launched in 2012. It features:

  • Entries: 20,000 Miao-Han bilingual entries
  • Scripts used: Miao (romanized, I assume), International Phonetic Alphabet and Mandarin
  • Examples: Sentences, passages and translations

Ironically, I don’t believe the Miao-Han Dictionary is part of the larger national project I’ve been discussing; the press release doesn’t mention the project, and the name of the dictionary does not include the standard “big”. It is (reportedly) published by Nationalities Publishing House of Yunnan (云南民族出版社)—but when I checked recently, I also couldn’t find it online . . .

From the reading I have done about the much-publicized—and I’d assume handsomely subsidized—“Minority Language Dictionary Series,” however, it may not help create or distribute truly practical linguistic reference tools. Here’s why I say so:

Encyclopedia vs. dictionary: Some of the so-called “dictionaries” focus mainly or entirely on the people’s culture or history. This appears to be the case for the Naxi volume (纳西族卷). I have not seen it, but the 2003 press release promotes it as an “encyclopedic reference tool” (百科性质的工具书), and notes that it contains only 3,000 entries while aiming to give a full accounting of the history and current status of Naxi “society, geography, history, economy, science, philosophy,” etc.

Limited distribution: Like so many bilingual and/or minority-themed publications in China, once their launch has been announced with great fanfare, it becomes almost impossible to find anything about them—where to buy, for instance—just a few months later. This is true of most of the “dictionaries” so far, and it begs the question: are these books designed, distributed—and priced—to increase literacy among young minority students, or simply to languish unused in a university library?

For more information, see my dictionary archives.



2 thoughts on “Minority Language Big Dictionary Project: Linguistic Reference Tools, Encyclopedias or Vaporware?

  1. The real linguistic situation in Yunnan is much more complex of what the books can show. If we remember that when the project of minority identification was carried out in the 1950s there were about 400 ethnic groups that requested to be considered a national minority, we will be nearer the truth. People speaking different dialects of a minority language usually cannot communicate between them in their shared minority language but must use Chinese.


    1. @Pedro Good point. All the Chinese cadres were doing when they did that initial census in the 50s was going through the steps, i.e., copying their Soviet Big Brother (苏联大哥) and its policy for dealing with the various peoples in the Soviet Union. When they realized that there were hundreds of ethnic groups—just in Yunnan alone—that saw themselves as separate, they didn’t know quite what to do. But once they decided there were 55 ethnic minorities, that was that. And that’s why the current national project calls for 55 “big dictionaries”; one for each recognized minority. The fact that Taiwan, for instance, has belatedly recognized additional tribes such as the Seediq in 2008 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seediq_people), has not inspired the mainland authorities to “do the right thing”, admit that their original classifications were sometimes very unscientific, and recognize any new ethnic groups.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s