Keeping a minority language alive – Eveline Chao
In 2015, linguist Ross Perlin helped bring something utterly novel into the world: the very first book (as far as he knows) that had ever been written or published in a certain language. The language was Trung, spoken by fewer than 7,000 people in a river valley of Yunnan Province, close to the border with Burma and Tibet. The book was a Trung-Chinese-English dictionary, of which a modest number were printed and distributed locally within the 60-mile-wide area of China where Trung speakers live. The dictionary is also available online.
Together with three Trung collaborators, Perlin began compiling the dictionary in 2009. “Working first in Chinese and then haltingly in Trung, I recorded ghost stories and folksongs, studied rituals and conversations, and teased apart fine points of grammar,” Perlin wrote of the experience in Harper’s. His work with Trung stems from a broad interest in endangered languages that began in 2003, after Perlin heard Sun Hongkai, China’s most distinguished linguist, speak at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing about China’s great diversity of languages – and the fact that many are disappearing. Perlin is now the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, an advocacy organization that helps New York’s immigrant and refugee communities keep their languages alive.
More than 200 languages are spoken among China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China. (The number varies depending on how language is defined – Ethnologue puts the country’s number of living languages at 275.) As many as 100 of these are spoken in Yunnan. Together with surrounding Nepal, Bhutan, northeast India, northern Burma, Thailand and Laos, this region, sometimes called Zomia, comprises one of the great language hotspots of the world, where a tremendous amount of ethnic and linguistic diversity still survives.
The Trung (called Dulong in Mandarin) are one of the smallest of China’s 55 official minority groups. Among Chinese tourists, the Trung are best known for their bygone practice of facial tattooing for women. Like most people in this area, Trung tend to be multilingual – most speak some combination of Trung, Nu (another minority language), Lisu (spoken by a larger ethnic group and used as a lingua franca in the area), and Southwest Mandarin (or Yunnan hua). Some also speak Tibetan and Burmese.
To demonstrate the range of languages spoken here, Perlin cited the example of a church service in the area. Though the Trung are traditionally animist, many Trung – just under a third in one of the villages Perlin studied – are Christian. “The hymns are in Lisu, with Lisu hymn books, because the Lisu are the missionaries in this area; with American melodies, because many Lisu were originally converted by American missionaries,” said Perlin by phone. “The reading of the Bible would often be in Chinese, because the best and most available Bible translations are in Chinese. But then the sermons would often be in Trung.”
With modernity, economically driven migration, mass media, and the rise of compulsory Mandarin-language education, the need to speak Mandarin has grown, and with that, the danger that Trung will die out. Half the world’s languages, say Perlin, have fewer than 10,000 speakers, and most will likely die out within this century. Perlin hopes that the Trung-Chinese-English dictionary will help preserve Trung. For example, it could help Chinese-speaking teachers communicate with students from Trung-speaking homes. And the creation of a system for recording what had previously been an unwritten language has enabled people to start texting in Trung. That in turn reinforces its use and helps to maintain the language.
“People I’ve spoken to have welcomed the dictionary as a symbol of the language, but ultimately the use of it will be up to Trung people themselves,” says Perlin. “It’s usually a long and difficult process, amidst everything else, to start reading and writing in a traditionally oral, and increasingly endangered, language.”
Trung legend holds that they did, once before, have a writing system, but “a dog chewed up the dried animal skin on which it was recorded,” as Perlin wrote in Harper’s. “Other nonliterate peoples in the region tell a similar story: the dog ate our alphabet, it fell in the river, a fire consumed it – in short, we may not have a writing system right now, but we know what this reading and writing business is all about.” Hopefully, that pesky dog stays away this time around. ∎