New database of China’s languages?

This recent article by Ben Blanchard at Reuters states:

This week the government launched a new project to develop a vocal database of all China’s dialects and languages, to assist with preservation efforts.

I’ve written to Ben to see if I can find out more. In the meantime, if anyone knows about this, please comment! [UPDATE: he did write back and I’ve updated the story on this post] The rest of the article is a depressing but familiar read about the societal and family pressures that are resulting in parents not speaking to their children in their own native language. While the article is about China it could as well be almost anywhere in the world.

One of Sinoglot’s languages of particular interest, Manchu, gets a mention, as do a number of others including a Tungusic language, Evenki / Ewenki, that I don’t believe I’d run into before. Just another reminder of China’s astounding linguistic diversity… or of my own astounding ignorance, as I see that Bruce Humes has just mentioned Right Bank of the Argun (额尔古纳河右岸) by Chi Zijian, “a first-person narrative told from the point of view of an aging Evenki woman in the last years of the 20th century.” The book hasn’t been translated into English, but you can get a taste through Bruce’s translation of part of the author’s afterword.

(h/t Eye on East Asia for the Ben Blanchard article)

5 responses to “New database of China’s languages?”

  1. Daan says:

    That would be an exciting project! I hope “all of China’s dialects and languages” means just that, though. You never know. Perhaps they’ll only do one language per ethnic group. If anyone knows more, please do share :)

    In the meantime, I can tell you, Syz, that you need not worry about not having heard of the Evenki language before. I ran into the Chinese word for the ethnic group that speaks this language (鄂温克) the other day, and couldn’t find it in any of the dictionaries at my disposal. Nor did my highly educated Taiwanese lecturer know it. Of course, when we turned to the internet, it was a matter of seconds. But it’s certainly not common knowledge 😉

  2. Syz says:

    Thanks for the support, Daan. I should just stick with my original definition, that anything I don’t know is not common knowledge :)

  3. NielDLR says:

    Wow, that’s an admirable task! A vocal database of all the dialects!? That’s insane almost. It’d be great if some people tried to transcribe it as well (ie Exmaralda).

  4. Chrix says:

    Evenki comes up quite often in typology, especially with regard to head-finality and clause-chaining (it’s a very nice agglutinating language). OK, so if you’re a typologist in these areas, you should have heard of it ;)…

    But as most of the linguists working on it seem to be Russians, I never knew that the language is also spoken in China…

  5. Bruce says:

    Thanks for mentioning my translation of the Afterword from “Right Bank of the Argun.”

    This book by Chinese author Chi Zijian, a fictionalized first-person narrative of an Evenki woman that is quite moving, may well soon be available in English. At the moment, I am translating an excerpt for marketing to publishers in the West.

    It is not surprising that many of the “minority” languages of China are not well known either there or outside. Quite a number of them are spoken by small, somewhat isolated groups of people on the borders of China, like the Evenki. They may be Chinese citizens, but they are essentially nomadic people who traditionally went where their livelihood — based upon reindeer — took them. For them, “Russia” or “China” are rather abstract terms.

    I would argue that the languages of many such minorities in China are endangered not simply because of the small and shrinking numbers of their native speakers, or modernization and urbanization, but also because of the policies of the Chinese government. Since 1949 those policies have fluctuated quite a bit, but generally tend toward insisting on education in Mandarin and writing non-Han languages in latin letters. Two major exceptions would be Tibetan and Uighur, however, that are still written in their traditional forms, but that is hardly surprising given that Tibetan and Uighur speakers number in the tens of millions, and can thus not easily be ignored or assimilated.

    Crucially — to my knowledge — there have been few attempts at creating a written form for most of these languages. If such projects are underway, they are not being publicized, and I am fairly sure no foreign linguists would be involved because that would be politically very sensitive.

    It should be remembered that anthropology was not taught or considered a legitimate realm of academic inquiry in China until the 1990s, because it was considered that anthropology’s “open” view as to how societies evolve conflicted with the Marxist view that all societies evolve in a set pattern.

    I am no expert on the topics mentioned above, and am only offering my opinion here. I look forward to learning more about the many languages of China through your web site.

    Bruce Humes
    Chinese Books, English Reviews

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