"How Many Languages? Linguists Discover New Tongues in China"
Thread poster: Vito Smolej

Vito Smolej
Germany
Local time: 18:52
Member (2004)
English to Slovenian
+ ...
Apr 30, 2009

...After a long day in the field, deep in the mountains of southwestern China near the border with Vietnam, retired environmental health professor Gary Shook was surprised to meet another American, Jamin Pelkey, staying in the same government guesthouse. The two exchanged pleasantries.

"I'm collecting tiger beetles," explained Shook, who had found four new species in the region. "What about you?"

"I'm collecting new species of languages," replied Pelkey, then a graduate student at La Trobe University in Australia doing fieldwork for his dissertation....

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/sci;324/5925/332a


 

Vito Smolej
Germany
Local time: 18:52
Member (2004)
English to Slovenian
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
The article referred to above is not freely available, May 1, 2009

so I quote the relevant parts of the article as follows:

...
At a time when hundreds of languages are disappearing because children don't learn them and adults don't speak them, it may seem surprising that many existing languages have never even been named (though they are not "new," especially not to the people who speak them). Yet there are potentially hundreds of undiscovered languages in China, Burma, the Amazon, and elsewhere, linguists say. Pelkey's 24 are listed for the first time this month, in the latest edition of Ethnologue: Languages of the World, an authoritative, worldwide gazetteer of languages maintained and published by SIL International, a nonprofit based in Dallas, Texas. This newest edition of Ethnologue lists 6909 living languages from 156 countries, including 83 "new" languages from 19 countries.
...
How can there be so many undiscovered languages in one region? One reason is the remoteness of villages. "Yunnan has so many mountains, and transportation was so limited before the Communists started building roads, and ethnic groups have been proliferating for so many centuries there," Pelkey says. "The astonishing thing would be to walk into the situation and find only a few dozen languages."

Yunnan is most frequently identified by the colorfully embroidered clothes and quilted hats of the non-Han ethnic groups who have called the mountains and lowlands home for thousands of years. Because their languages were rarely written down, linguistic change went unchecked. Local and imperial governments had little interest in languages, leaving them uncounted.

Centuries of isolation widened the gap between varieties descended from the same parent tongue. Today, the 500 speakers of Alo Phola can't understand speakers of a sister language spoken less than 8 kilometers away, says Pelkey. One of Pelkey's main criteria for judging language separateness is "mutual intelligibility," or how well speakers of different varieties are able to understand each other. Among speakers of the 24 Phula languages, mutual intelligibility is so low that if they ever got together, they would have to communicate in a regional variety of Mandarin, Pelkey says.
...
The 24 new Phula languages included in Ethnologue have now acquired something of an official status internationally because they have been assigned identification codes by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Such language codes are used in software, digital archives, and library collections and are an official recognition that a speech variety meets ISO's definition of a "language." It remains to be seen how the Chinese government will react to this recognition. Says Mullaney, "When people start to talk about there being new languages out there, it really starts to pull the thread out of this idea that there are a set number of minzu."

Pelkey hopes a discussion will ensue. "You start out with assumed categories, then you find a lot of diversity inside them, and then you use a scientific approach to modify your understanding," he says. "The two don't have to be in dissonance, and they don't have to be in consonance, either." Otherwise, defining a language invites so much controversy, discovering species of beetles looks like a walk in the park.


 

chica nueva
Local time: 06:52
Chinese to English
Chinese ethnic groups/minorities May 6, 2009

Hello Vito

As far as I can see, the Pula speakers in Yunnan are a subgroup of the Yi people, no. 8 on the list here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_groups_in_China

If you are interested in the 'Chinese minorities', then there is another Wiki link about that.

Lesley


 


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