Campus: CSU Chico -- February 16, 2004

Linguists Receive National Science Foundation Grant to Study Disappearing Languages

Two California State University, Chico linguists, Frank Li and Graham Thurgood, have received a two-year, $188,300 grant from the National Science Foundation to document three seriously endangered languages of China.

In collaboration with Professor Sun Hongkai of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Professor Lindsay Whaley of Dartmouth College, Li and Thurgood have undertaken work designed to document these languages while it is still possible: Tsat, an Austronesian language spoken by some 3,850 bilinguals on Hainan Island; Anong, a Nungish Tibeto-Burman language spoken by some 400 people in Yunnan Province; and Oroqen, a Tungusic language spoken by roughly 2,500 people in two provinces of northeastern China.

Within the next hundred years or so, as many as half the world's languages may disappear. Aware of this, scholars throughout the world have responded by doing what they can to record these languages before time runs out. All three languages to be documented are undergoing rapid change under the influence of intense contact with Mandarin Chinese and other languages, and it is likely that all three will cease to be spoken within the next few decades.

In addition to documenting the languages, the data on these three languages, not only from different language families but also different kinds of languages, should help clarify the role that contact languages, in this case, Chinese, play in language loss. The three languages were chosen because they are genetically distinct (different families), typologically different (different types), and geographically distant from one another, sharing only their mutual contact with Chinese.

In addition to Professors Sun, Whaley, Li and Thurgood, the project also involves Professor Liu Guangkuan, Sun's wife, a leading specialist on the Qiang languages, and another CSU, Chico professor, Ela Thurgood, an expert in instrument phonology, the use of computer programs to record the languages, produce voice prints and measure pitch patterns instrumentally.

Professors Sun and Liu arrived in Chico for a four-month stay during which they will work on Anong. Professor Sun has been working on Anong off and on for some 40 years, but has only recently began to publish on the language. In collaboration with Professors Li and Thurgood, he hopes to use the time in Chico to finish a grammar of Anong, to be published both in English and in Chinese.

“Professor Sun is the key to the project's success,” said Graham Thurgood. “Not only does he have a well-deserved reputation as one of the world's leading experts on the minority languages of China, but he has a network of contacts with linguists in China, without which much of this work could not be done.”

Sun has done fieldwork on 29 languages, produced grammatical sketches of 10 of those languages and compiled word lists of many others, while functioning as the editor of various publications on the minority languages of China, including the editorship of a recent series that, when completed, will include grammars of roughly 40 languages.

The intention of the program is to produce, among other things, three short grammars augmented by instrumental studies of the tones and sound systems of the languages, much of which will be conducted by Professor Ela Thurgood both in the field and at the Phonology Laboratory at CSU, Chico.

CONTACT: Kathleen McPartland, 530-898-4260
Graham Thurgood, Department of English,530-898-5450

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