Linguists Receive NSF Grant to Study Disappearing Languages

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.

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, typologically different, and geographically distant from one another, sharing only their mutual contact with Chinese.

In addition to Professors Sun, Whaley, Li, and Thurgood, Professor Liu Guangkuan, a leading specialist on Qiang languages, and Professor Ela Thurgood, an expert in instrument phonology, will work on the project.

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.

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.