Survey of Highly Endangered Mondzish Languages in Yunnan, China

Independent Scholar
San Jose, California
Anthropology
Open Access
DOI: 10.18258/4173
$1,000
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Funded on 2/11/15
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About This Project

The Mondzish languages are spoken mostly in Wenshan Prefecture, Yunnan Province, southwestern China. These languages are highly endangered and poorly documented, often lacking even basic descriptions. I plan to finish collecting audio recordings and basic word lists for all Mondzish languages. Since most of these languages have fewer than 500 speakers left, and some have only around 50 elderly speakers remaining, research is highly urgent.

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What is the context of this research?

The Mondzish languages were recently identified by Ziwo Lama in 2012 as a new group (clade) of languages. They share a common ancestor with Burmese, and form part of the Lolo-Burmese branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family. However, at the time, Lama identified only 2 languages as part of the group.

So far, I have identified 6 separate languages in this language group, some of which are new to science and extremely endangered (many with fewer than 500 speakers left). At least a few more Mondzish languages in China still await discovery and identification.

According to Wenshan locals, a few nearby small ethnic groups reportedly speak similar but "different" languages, which could possibly be other languages unknown to science. These include "Meng" of Lisa village, and "Mengpu" of Dagulu.

What is the significance of this project?

Today, language diversity is highly threatened by globalization and cultural assimilation. In China, language endangerment is especially severe, with ethnic minority languages often not being passed onto people under the age of 30 or 40. Many minority languages in China are so endangered that only a few elderly speakers remain, making language documentation a desperately urgent "race against time". Such languages often hold important clues to human prehistory and migration, but may soon die out without ever being known to science.

Furthermore, some Mondzish languages preserve highly archaic sounds and words. For instance, the Kathu language preserves many rare, archaic sounds such as "kl"-, as well as many words that are closer to its common ancestral language, Proto-Tibeto-Burman.

What are the goals of the project?

- Collection of basic vocabulary word lists (a few hundred items). Audio recordings will be collected and posted online; each word will be repeated by the consultant 3 times.
- Conduct fieldwork in rural Yunnan, China for one month by hiring local motorbikes and minivans. Springtime (before the rainy season) is optimal.
- Survey of demographics, such as villages where the language is spoken
- Identify other little-known ethnic subgroups who may speak languages that are previously unknown to science and undocumented.
- All data collected from field trips will be open-source and freely shared. Data has been supplied to Glottolog, resulting in cataloging of languages new to science, freely available online (example: the Muangphe language: http://glottolog.org/resource/languoid/id/muan1234 )

Budget

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Fortunately in China, linguistics research is relatively cheap and can be carried out on a backpacker's budget.

Excluding airfare and visas, one month of linguistics research in southwestern China is expected to cost around $1,600 USD (10,000 Chinese yuan), which was about what I spent per month during my past self-funded field trips to China. This time, I plan to do research for at 2-3 weeks and spend $1,000. Average costs in rural Yunnan, China are as follows.

  • Budget hotel: 60-100 yuan ($10-$16)
  • Budget meal: 12-15 yuan ($2-$3)
  • Motorcycle-taxi, round-trip: 150 yuan ($25) - only available in some towns
  • Minivan-taxi, round-trip: 200-400 yuan ($30-$65) - available in all towns
  • Bus fare to rural town: 50 yuan ($8)
  • Tips for language consultants: 60 yuan ($10)

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Thank you for helping to save some of the world's most endangered languages!

Meet the Team

Andrew Hsiu
Andrew Hsiu

Team Bio

Andrew Hsiu has been documenting little-known but taxonomically important minority languages since 2012, while he was still a linguistics undergraduate student at UC San Diego. He has made 3 successful language documentation field trips to China, and has identified several languages in China that are new to science, including Muangphe, Maza, Ku, Luoji, and others. He has also documented new language varieties in northern Vietnam such as Na Meo of Tuyen Quang, and has performed additional language documentation fieldwork in Thailand, the Philippines, and San Diego, USA.

Andrew has worked at the Center for Research in Computational (CRCL) in Bangkok, Thailand building comparative databases of Southeast Asian minority languages, and has presented at numerous international academic conferences in Asia and the US. Currently an independent scholar, he is looking forward to continue documenting minority languages in East Asia.

Website: http://sealang.academia.edu/AndrewHsiu

Andrew Hsiu

Andrew Hsiu has been documenting little-known but taxonomically important minority languages since 2012, while he was still a linguistics undergraduate student at UC San Diego. He has made 3 successful language documentation field trips to China, and has identified several languages in China that are new to science, including Muangphe, Maza, Ku, Luoji, and others. He has also documented new language varieties in northern Vietnam such as Na Meo of Tuyen Quang, and has performed additional language documentation fieldwork in Thailand, the Philippines, and San Diego, USA.

Andrew has worked at the Center for Research in Computational (CRCL) in Bangkok, Thailand building comparative databases of Southeast Asian minority languages, and has presented at numerous international academic conferences in Asia and the US. Currently an independent scholar, he is looking forward to continue documenting minority languages in East Asia.Website:

http://sealang.academia.edu/AndrewHsiu

Press and Media

This project builds on the work of other eminent language researchers such as Jamin Pelkey and Jerold Edmondson. Both have discovered new Tibeto-Burman languages in China and Vietnam previously unknown to science.

Jamin Pelkey - Linguists Discover New Tongues in China
http://www.michaelerard.com/publications/2009/05/2...

Jerold Edmondson - A man of words–and actions
http://www.uta.edu/publications/utamagazine/winter...



Additional Information

One of the last speakers of the Mango language, which is a new language I had discovered in April 2013. Just under 50 fluent speakers remain in 2 small villages. Nearly all fluent are over 50 years old, and the language is not being passed onto young people anymore. Documentation is extremely urgent.


Kathu speakers in Nabi village, Wenshan, China. The Kathu language preserves many highly archaic features (such as the sound kl-) that are found only in a few modern-day languages such as Written Burmese. Only a few thousand speakers in 2 village clusters remain. The speakers below speak a previously dialect of Kathu that was unknown and undocumented before my preliminary documentation in April 2013.


The last Wai Gelao in Funing County, Yunnan Province, China who can recall any words in Wai Gelao. She is in her mid-80's. She only remembers several vocabulary words.


Typical village scene, with a minivan-taxi in the foreground. Minivan-taxis are available for hire at the town centers for $30-$50 (200-300 Chinese yuan) per trip. A one-way trip to a typical field site would take around half an hour if road conditions are good.


A motorcycle-taxi taking me through the rugged mountainous landscape of Yunnan in 2012. My goal was to find the only woman in China who could still speak Red Gelao.


A typical field session: The language consultant pronounces words and sentences in his native language as I perform audio recordings using a USB microphone connected to a netbook computer.



Thank you for helping to save some of the world's most endangered languages!


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