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Novel Idea Keeps Mother Tongues Alive


For the Anong people living in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, bows were once the most important part of their daily life.

Dwelling on the small patches of flat lands on the banks of the Nu River roaring across the snow-covered Biluo and Gaoligong mountains, the Anong people had relied on the bow and arrow to get food.

Hence, it was natural that when Sun Hongkai first went to Fugong County of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province in 1960, the local people spent a few hours describing to him the different parts of a bow.

However, when Sun went back to the county in 1999, few people still used bows, and even less people could tell him the names of a bow's components.

The colorful stories of the Anong people were also lost when some elderly people passed away.

"It's both interesting and sad to witness the gradual withering of a language," said Sun. "Recording this disappearance is an important duty of a linguist."

Since 1960, Sun has followed the changes of the Anong language. This language's gradual disappearance is typical of the many ethnic minority languages about to disappear in China, he said.

The Anong people are one of the four sub-divisions of the Nu ethnic minority. Today, most Anong people speak either putonghua (standard Chinese) or the languages of the Lisu or Bai ethnic minorities, who live in the region. In his survey in 1999, Sun found six villages in Mugujia Township of the Fugong County that still actively used the Anong language.

There are many reasons leading to the weakening of this language.

According to the Anong people's legends, they moved south to the present settlement about 70 generations ago from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Then, between some 40 to 50 generations ago, ancestors of the Lisu and the Bai ethnic minorities moved to the Nu River. As an open-minded group, the Anong people lived in harmony with the newcomers, gradually adopting the Lisu and Bai languages.

Long before 1949, most of the region's Anong people had lost their mother tongue. This trend continued in the following years.

The first time Sun Hongkai arrived in Fugong County was in September 1960. He found a primary school teacher named Fan Guopu who spoke the Anong language very well. Sun recorded about 2,000 words in daily usage and some typical sentences.

Besides the various parts of the bow, Sun was delighted to learn from the local women some 70 components of the traditional loom. He also followed an old man into the mountains and carefully noted the names of various herbs.

"We tried to record everything about the Anong people's culture, such as medicine, astronomy, hunting and others," said Sun. "This is the basis for further studies."

At that time, Sun estimated about 800 people among the 4,300 Anong people were speaking the Anong language on a daily basis.

The situation did not change much when he went to Fugong again in 1965.

In 1983, Sun found another helpful partner named Han Wenjun, who spoke good putonghua, so Sun soon understood many interesting folk tales.

Han talked about the Anong legends for many days in highly colorful speech. Besides antithetical sentences, the man used many vivid words unique to the Anong people. However, at that time, Sun did not have enough time to record all of the stories.

But Sun recorded the names of 25 generations of Han's family. In the local tradition, the last word of the father's name is the beginning word of the son's name.

"This genealogy is very precious. Han is a man of great memory," said Sun.

In 1987, Sun conducted surveys among the younger Anong people, recording some long folk stories as well as family history. In October 1995, he went into the villages and conducted a house-to-house survey. There were then just 410 people speaking the Anong language.

The last time he returned there in 1999, he was sad to find Han and a number of elderly people above the age of 70 had passed away.

The remaining elderly also remembered stories but their vocabulary was much smaller. For the stories that Han could relate in several days, the present story-tellers would finish them in just a few sentences.

In 1960, 18.6 percent of the 4,300 Anong people could use their mother tongue. In 1994, the Anong population had risen to 7,200 but only 5.56 percent still persisted in using the old language.

"I really regret not spending enough time to work with Han," said Sun. "For the disappearing languages, we must grasp every chance to record them."

Besides the loss of folklore, the pronunciation of some common words in the Anong language has also changed. When Sun interviewed some younger Anong people, they often confused the usage of some words with Lisu or other languages.

During his studies, Sun noted an interesting phenomenon. In the villages where only a few Lisu people married into the Anong families, the Lisu people seldom learned to speak the more complicated Anong language, and the whole family often communicated in the Lisu language. Even if an old member of the family spoke the Anong language, the younger generation would naturally respond in the Lisu language.

While many Anong people do not pay much attention to their mother tongue's disappearance, there are some local officials and scholars worried about their language.

For example, Ya Na, an official of the Nu ethnic minority, urged the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture government to provide funds for the local scholars to record and study the local languages.

According to Xu Shixuan, Sun Hongkai's colleague at the Ethnic Minority Institute, there are many scholars and officials like Ya who are working hard to protect their own ethnic languages.

"The future of language diversity is brighter, with more ethnic minorities joining in the efforts to save their own languages," said Xu, who is working on a book about endangered languages throughout the whole world.

(China Daily November 15, 2001)

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