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ELDP Project Profile: Grammar of Minyag, a minority language of Western Sichuan

This week on the ELAR blog, ELPD grantee Agnes Conrad tells us about her project ‘Grammar of Minyag, a minority language of Western Sichuan‘.

Can you give us some background on the language ecology in your area?

Minyag (mvm) is an endangered Tibeto-Burman language spoken by somewhere around 10,000 people living in the vicinity of Mt. Gongga, Sichuan, China. Almost all speakers are at least bilingual (Mandarin and Minyag), and a high percentage in the northern speaking areas are trilingual (Mandarin, Minyag, Kham Tibetan). It’s presently considered a Qiangic language.

What is your research question and why did you choose it?

I started out wanting to achieve a broad grammatical sketch of the language. This was the topic of my MA thesis, which I completed in 2019. I chose this topic thinking that it would help me to get a good grasp of the language and provide research directions for future studies.

Why did you want to work with this community?

Three Western Minyag speakers involved with the project—Damchoe Yarphel, Tsutri Wangmo, and Lhamo Yangzom—received a grant from the Endangered Languages Fund. Their project, “Promoting Minyag Language and Traditional Culture through Film” is also currently underway and will share Minyag language short-films highlighting traditional culture and handicrafts via a public social media platform. Tsutri Wangmo (center) is pictured here participating in video documentation of traditional felt-making alongside two Minyag speakers from Lhatse village. See their work on WeChat by looking up the handle: lmyz19990420 (Photo Credit: Damchoe Yarphel)

To make a fairly long story short, I ended up meeting one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever known; a man in his 70s who had spent his entire life dreaming of doing something for his language, Minyag. In the 1980s he would spend his entire, modest monthy teacher’s salary on books which he had to walk three days to retrieve. Carrying texts on foot for himself and for his students, he had experienced frostbite, snow blindness, and countless other pains. In more recent years, he had painstakingly taught himself how to use a computer, and was working on writing down his language. An autodidact and avid news watcher, he’d heard about the IPA, but needed help figuring it out. He was getting old, and he worried that everything beautiful that he loved about his language was going to be lost. He was worried that no one cared. The day I met him, I left his house in tears at the pure and intense love of knowledge which humanity is capable of. I’d met an aesthetic who had lived his whole life in pursuit of what it really meant to be human; who had at times in his youth chosen reading over a full stomach. He was of the same class of people who risked their lives protecting seed banks or retrieving works of art during World War II. I’d finally met someone who was born knowing what truly makes us human in the best sense of the word. I didn’t know IPA, but I was going to learn. I didn’t know a thing about Minyag language, but I was going to learn. I had only taken less than one semester of linguistic course work at the time, but I was determined to figure it out. With the support and encouragement of a Minyag speaking classmate and local friends, I applied for ELDP a few months after meeting the man mentioned above. He’s a rather private fellow, so I will refer to him as Grandpa here.

What’s been your highlight of the project so far and why?

Three of the project’s primary consultants, Lhamo Yangzom, Wang Baobao, and Tsutri Wangmo (from left) were accepted to the 14th Workshop on Sino-Tibetan Languages of Southwest China in Nankai, Summer 2019. They were the only undergraduate students to participate in the workshop usually attended by MA and PhD students. (Photo Credit: Private)

Without a doubt, the highlight of the project was the consultants. The level of community interest, and in particular youth interest in the project far surpassed all initial expectations. Everywhere I went, I was either referred to or directly approached by a number of native-speaker college students interested in translation, documentation, or film-making. It’s no exaggeration to say that the project would have been impossible without them.

Four of the project’s main consultants are now involved in their own documentation projects (Tsutri Wangmo, Damchoe Yarphel, Lhamo Yangzom, Wang Baobao). Especially exciting for me is the fact that so many of them got interested in linguistics!

So far, two members of our ‘team’ have written B.A. theses in linguistics. Damchoe Yarphel examined Minyag phonology (2019), and Tsutri Wangmo looked at classifiers (2020). A third, Dekyi Wangmo (2021) is planning to do a phonological and lexical comparison between two Minyag varieties.

What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

Honestly, almost everything. Trial and error the whole way through. When I actually set out to achieve what sounded reasonably easy on paper, there turned out to be an enormous learning curve. I guess if I had to name a few things in hopes of maybe helping some other poor soul:

  • One village was so full of cicadas in the summer it became impossible to record. Check your seasonal bug situation!
  • Almost all of my consultants are fluent in a major Tibetan dialect, so I assumed their levels of fluency in spoken and written Tibetan would be on par from having learned in school. Wrong! Watch out for diglossias!
  • Getting things done on time. Exchange cultures are hard to navigate if you’re not from one. Some of my core team members would refuse to be paid, so it became difficult to rush them (here’s looking at you Lhamo).
  • Software. Software. Software.
Group dinner after the successful completion of a documentation training workshop hosted for project consultants in Chengdu, Sichuan, January 2019. Project consultants Damchoe Yarphel (far right), Tsutri Wangmo (second from right), Lhamo Yangzom (center), with principle investigator Agnes Conrad (second from left) and fellow ELDP grantee Nate Sims (far left). (Photo Credit: Private)
Although they aren’t pictured above, I’d also like to mention Phurbu Tashi, Sonam Dolkar, and Lhamo for their involvement with recording and translation.

If you could start the project again would you do anything differently?

I would invest in a computer which is NOT a Mac. Other than that, nothing! If I had known infinitely more than my consultants at the beginning, we wouldn’t have the deep, perhaps traumatic, bonds we forged over our countless hours of banging our heads against a wall (together… the same wall) while trying to figure out recording equipment, software, transcription, and file transferring.

What still needs to be done?

Study of Eastern Minyag! Here it’s worth noting that the name Minyag is generally used to refer to Western Minyag, but there is another, related language further east known as Eastern Minyag or Shimian Minyag. There is no research examining the relation of the two Minyags, and though they are mutually unintelligible, previous scholars have referred to them as dialects. This project documented both Minyags under the project codes 0539 (Western) and 0637 (Eastern). Transcriptions, analysis and glossing were only achieved for Western Minyag. Translations were achieved for a good deal of the Eastern Minyag material. If you are reading this and are looking for something to do, please look at me and Wang Baobao’s Eastern Minyag data (0637) and start working on a phonological sketch! Eastern Minyag is in a far more critical state than Western Minyag and I have had no time to work on it!

Thanks Agnes!

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