Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



Duoxu Vocabularies and Texts by Wu Wancai

From 2013 to 2017 three ELDP grantees; Katia Chirkova, Han Zhengkang, and Wang Dehe worked on the documentation and description of a critically endangered Tibeto-Burman language, Duoxu, as part of the “Comparative and Cross-Varietal Documentation of Highly Endangered Languages of South-West China” (MDP0257) project, funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme. The research team’s documentation work consisted of recording the speech of the last fluent Duoxu speakers, supplemented by vocabulary lists collected by Duoxu community members. One manuscript in particular, compiled by Wu Wancai (1926-2006), allowed the research team to acquire a more complete picture of the language and to even tentatively reconstruct some vocabulary items that could no longer be recalled by the few remaining speakers. Hence, Wu Wancai’s manuscript enriched our understanding of Duoxu and helped us to create a more representative documentation record of this disappearing language.

Duoxu (/do³³-ɕu³³-na³¹/, Duōxù 多续or Duōxū 多须in Mandarin Chinese) is a Tibeto-Burman language, spoken in Mianning county (冕宁县), which is located in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture (凉山彝族自治州) in Sichuan province (四川省) in the People’s Republic of China. Duoxu is part of a close-knit cluster of three languages (Duoxu, Lizu, Ersu), which due to their close genetic relationship, and despite their mutual unintelligibility, are currently classified as three dialects of one Ersu language (ISO-639 code ers).

Duoxu stands out from the many minority languages of China for two reasons; first, it is among the most critically endangered languages in the country. Stigmatized and virtually forbidden during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Duoxu went out of use by the end of the 1970s, and then only used in household situations. Currently, hardly any of the 2,000 Duoxu people speak the traditional language of their community. A survey of all remaining Duoxu speakers in April 2013, conducted as part of the aforementioned ELDP project, identified a mere nine remaining speakers. Sadly, due to their elderliness and age-related health problems, only two speakers (Mr. Wu Rongfu 伍荣富and Mrs. Wu Decai 吴德才) were able to participate in language documentation work.

Photo of the main Duoxu consultants Wu Rongfu (伍荣富, left) and Wu Decai (吴德才, right), November 2017 (Katia Chirkova)

Second, Duoxu is among the least studied Tibeto-Burman languages of China. There are no published data on Duoxu from before the language went out of use, and prior to our project, the entire documentation record of Duoxu consisted of two short lexical lists and one basic grammatical sketch.

Given that background, our documentation work faced considerable difficulties. On the one hand, the speech of the last speakers we were working with was characterized by extensive individual variation. In addition, as none of the speakers had the chance of using Duoxu in everyday life (where they normally use the Mianning dialect of Southwest Mandarin instead), they typically could not recall even some very basic words, such as common animal names, bird names, and traditional household utensils. On the other hand, in the absence of previous attestations of Duoxu dating from before the language went out of use, we lacked external sources to evaluate the intactness and consistency of the data we collected with the last speakers.

The spectacular discovery of several Duoxu vocabulary lists and texts, collected by individual community members and circulating in the Duoxu community, provided us with a means to solve some of the above problems. One manuscript particularly stood out for the sheer amount of data it contained: a lengthy vocabulary list of over 2700 words and a collection of texts, including song lyrics, proverbs, riddles, and narratives. That manuscript was entitled Liangshan zhou Zangzu jianshi: Mianning xian Zangzu Duoxu zhi pu 凉山州藏族简史:冕宁县藏族多续之谱 [A brief history of the Tibetans of Liangshan Prefecture: The Duoxu Tibetans of Mianning county].

Front page of the manuscript

It was compiled by Wu Wancai 吴万才 (1926-2006), a native Duoxu speaker. Worried about the fate of his language, Wu started collecting Duoxu data in 1955 and worked on his manuscript for over 47 years. To our knowledge, his manuscript provides the largest collection of lexical data on Duoxu known to date, which furthermore stem from the time when the language was still actively spoken.

Photo of Wu Wancai

Using Wu’s data was not without challenges. One complication was that the data were transcribed in Chinese characters, which at best approximate the pronunciation of words in languages other than Chinese. Another complication is that, in addition to regular Chinese characters, Wu created a number of phonograms in order to record Duoxu consonant-vowel combinations that do not occur in Chinese (such as njaor ki; some examples of regular characters and Wu’s self-created phonograms are provided on the following page from the manuscript, self-created phonograms are encircled in the photo below).

Examples of regular and self-created characters

Unfortunately, Wu did not leave any indications of how those phonograms were to be read. To be able to use the rich Duoxu data in Wu’s manuscript, our research team conducted an additional study of the Mianning dialect of Southwest Mandarin, which was Wu’s native language. Having recorded all characters used by Wu in his Duoxu transcriptions, we could then systematically compare Wu’s character transcriptions in Mianning Mandarin with modern Duoxu readings of words from Wu’s list that could be recalled by and independently recorded with our Duoxu language consultants. We were thereby able to establish regular correspondence patterns between transcriptions and modern Duoxu readings and to get an understanding of the basic principles underlying Wu’s transcription. That, in turn, provided a key to interpreting the phonograms created by Wu.

By combining both a regular documentation work with the last speakers and an analysis of community records of the language, we could piece together a richer and more diverse picture of Duoxu, and bring back to life long-forgotten words, expressions, and even entire narratives.

An annotated version of Wu Wancai’s word list and some selected stories, accompanied by phonetic transcriptions of their Mianning Duoxu readings and modern Duoxu readings is in preparation. In the meantime, photos of the manuscript pages, manuscript-based elicitation sessions with our Duoxu consultants, and many more audio and video recordings of Duoxu can be consulted here.

Post by Katia Chirkova

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