Researchers in Kansas and China partner to document Silk Road languages online

Wed, 09/28/2011


Mary Jane Dunlap

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LAWRENCE — With today’s technology, linguistic anthropologists at the University of Kansas and Qinghai Nationalities University in China are collaborating in real time to document endangered languages in western China.

Arienne Dwyer, KU associate professor of linguistic anthropology, and her colleague, Professor W. Ma, in Qinghai (pronounced ching-hai), have been documenting Salar, an endangered language spoken in a western China region settled by Mongols, Turks, Tibetans and Chinese along the ancient Silk Road.

Dwyer launched The Interactive Inner Asia website this summer with a $260,000 grant from the Documenting Endangered Languages Program jointly supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“The site will allow users to actively explore how contact and change between languages affects how similar they are,” Dwyer said.

“By understanding a language area such as this one, we learn about all human languages: We can learn how languages merge with each other, how languages are lost, and how new languages are created.”

The new website also allows simultaneous research on Salar and four more Silk Road languages that Dwyer has also been documenting: Baonan, which is Mongolian and Tibetan; Wutun, a combination of Chinese and Tibetan; Kangjia, a combination of Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese; and Southeastern Monguor, also Mongolian and Chinese. Salar is a Turkic language.

The languages are spoken in northern Tibet along the upper reaches of the Yellow River in western China. Mongolic and Turkic peoples came to this mountainous region largely during the 13th century as the Mongols conquered China and Tibet. Recent dam construction along the Yellow River has resulted in many speakers of these languages being relocated when their villages were flooded – adding some urgency to the study.

Dwyer is tracing the origin and movement of vocabulary and grammatical markers between the five languages, plus Tibetan and Chinese.

“Language[s] lend and borrow grammar as well as vocabulary, and these can sometimes even be dated,” Dwyer said. For example, there are old-fashioned pronunciations of Chinese words in Salar, indicating that these were borrowed from Chinese at least 600 years ago.

The grant also covers developing an online dictionary tracing the origins of words and grammar in the five languages. In addition to building the major reference website, both Ma and Dwyer are expected to publish dictionaries based on their work.

Ma, a linguistic anthropologist and a native speaker of Salar, began collaborating with Dwyer in 1999 in China. He earned a master’s degree in anthropology from KU in 2007.

Dwyer, who specializes in Central Asian and Chinese languages and cultures, also co-directs KU’s Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities. She has conducted research in Central Asia and China for the past 20 years. Her 1996 doctoral dissertation focused on Salar.

Dwyer developed the Interactive Inner Asia website with Carlos M. Nash, assistant professor of anthropology. KU graduate students as well as native speakers are contributing data. The website eventually will include audio, text, images, a public Wiki and databases for scholars.

The Interactive Inner Asia website grant was one of three that Dwyer received this summer from the National Science Foundation. The second will fund a 2012 international summer institute to train academic linguists and indigenous community members on methods and technology for documenting and revitalizing languages with few or no speakers.

Dwyer and Nash will co-direct the six-week CoLang: Institute on Collaborative Language Research in June and July 2012. It will offer two weeks of intensive training in language technologies and practices, followed by a four-week apprenticeship in applying these techniques in a classroom.

The CoLang Institute is fortunate to host speakers of Tlingit (a Native American language of Alaska), Amazigh (Berber, a language of Morocco), and Uda (a language of Nigeria).

In addition, Dwyer has received a third grant from NSF to build a large searchable collection of electronic texts in Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gur), a major Central Asian Turkic language, spoken in a far western China region known as Chinese Turkestan. Chinese Turkestan is a cultural crossroads of early Indo-European, Christian, Buddhist and Islamic influences as well as being geostrategically important and rich in mineral resources.

The collection of edited and translated Uyghur texts allows access to the linguistic and cultural history of this vast region. Dwyer’s current project studies how a group of verbs in Uyghur came into use, and how they changed over time.

“By tracking them through an electronic text collection, we can compare so-called ‘light verbs’ to those in other languages, and confirm or refute universal theories about grammar,” Dwyer said. “Uyghur is particularly rich in these verbs that express irony, intention and how an action is done – something that in English might be done with tonal emphasis or with an adverb.”

Dwyer started a Uyghur language program at KU that is taught by a native speaker. KU is one of the few U.S. universities offering courses in Uyghur.

Wed, 09/28/2011


Mary Jane Dunlap

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Erin Curtis Dierks