Sunday, March 18, 2007

Department of Motivation: Saving the World's Endangered Languages

(MSM sez: My friend Doug is talking about starting a highly specialised blog about languages and linguistics. He even has a way cool name for it. It will rock. He could start a blog about procrastination, which is the only thing he knows more about than languages and linguistics. (Talk about the Pothead calling the kettle black.) We all have our challenges; if we're lucky the universe gives us friends to help compensate for them. Certainly he's kicked my ass more than once. Who am I not to return the favour? In the interest of the future happiness of everyone on the planet, I'm going to badger him into doing just that by providing extensive coverage of an issue that is dear to me: the preservation of linguistic diversity. This oughta get him.)

From: The New York Times
Date: March 18, 2007
Title: Chinese Village Struggles to Save Dying Language


SANJIAZI, China — Seated cross-legged in her farmhouse on the kang, a brick sleeping platform warmed by a fire below, Meng Shujing lifted her chin and sang a lullaby in Manchu, softly but clearly.

After several verses, Ms. Meng, a 82-year-old widow, stopped, her eyes shining.

“Baby, please fall asleep quickly,” she said, translating a few lines of the song into Chinese. “Once you fall asleep, Mama can go to work. I need to set the fire, cook and feed the pigs.”

“If you sing like this, a baby gets sleepy right away,” she said.

She also knows that most experts believe the day is approaching when no child will doze off to the sound of the song’s comforting words.

Ms. Meng is one of 18 residents of this isolated village in northeastern China, all over 80 years old, who, according to Chinese linguists and historians, are the last native speakers of Manchu.

Descendants of seminomadic tribesmen who conquered China in the 17th century, they are the last living link to a language that for more than two and a half centuries was the official voice of the Qing dynasty, the final imperial house to rule from Beijing and one of the richest and most powerful empires the world has known.

With the passing of these villagers, Manchu will also die, experts say. All that will be left will be millions of documents and files — about 60 tons of Manchu-language documents are in the provincial archive in Harbin alone — along with inscriptions on monuments and important buildings in China, unintelligible to all but a handful of specialists.

“I think it is inevitable,” said Zhao Jinchun, an ethnic Manchu born in Sanjiazi who taught at the village primary school for more than two decades before becoming a government official in Qiqihar, a city about 30 miles to the south. “It is just a matter of time. The Manchu language will face the same fate as some other ethnic minority languages in China and be overwhelmed by the Chinese language and culture.”

(While most experts agree that Manchu is doomed, Xibo, a closely related language, is likely to survive a little longer. Xibo is spoken by about 30,000 descendants of members of an ethnic group allied to the Manchus who in the 1700s were sent to the newly conquered western region of Xinjiang. But it, too, is under relentless pressure from Chinese.)

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