Thirty new languages discovered in China

Credit: Jamin Pelkey
Credit: Jamin Pelkey

Thirty new languages in China have recently been described by Assoc. Prof. David Bradley and Dr Jamin Pelkey of La Trobe University and reported by the journal Science.

Jamin described 18 new Phula languages based on work carried out from 2005 to 2006 in 41 mountain villages in Yunnan Province, Southwest China for his PhD. They are now recognised by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

David, who has worked in China since 1982, says, “China is one of the last places on earth with large numbers of unreported and undescribed languages. Until the 1980s it was forbidden to suggest that China had more than 55 languages.” He suspects Yunnan alone may have more than 150 languages.

Jamin, who now works in Canada, says centuries of isolation in the mountains have widened the gap between various language groups descended from the same parent tongue. For example, the 500 speakers of Alo Phola can’t understand speakers of a sister language less than eight kilometres away.

Some communities are uncomfortable with the new linguistic descriptions. David says, “Speakers of some 25 languages of the officially recognised Tibetan ethnic group in Sichuan strongly reject any claim that they’re anything but Tibetan, and don’t want distinct languages to be identified as such.”

For more information: La Trobe University, David Bradley, Tel: +61 (3) 9479 2362, d.bradley@latrobe.edu.au, www.latrobe.edu.au/bulletin/2009/winter/research4.html

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