reflections on Misneachd’s Radical Plan for Gaelic

My first encounter with (Scottish) Gaelic, or Gàidhlig, was at a mòd in Vancouver, Canada. A friend brought me along to this song and cultural festival and promptly introduced me to his Gaelic teacher, explaining to him that I spoke Irish, that other Gaelic. With a little effort, we were able to converse fairly naturally, each of us speaking our own language. At one point he was explaining the particulars of how people use different words on different islands and I noticed him using the word can, which in Irish means “sing”. To me, it sounded like people sing one word on a certain island but sing another word somewhere else. I attempted to clarify, and the exchange that ensued went something like this:

“Wait, so can means to say? Then how do you say to sing?”


“Oh, okay, for us seinm means to play an instrument.”

“For that we say cluich.”

“Okay, we also have that word, but for us it means a game. How do you say play, as in play a game?”

“Also cluich, but you can say iomairt for playing cards.”

“We use imirt for playing any game or sport.”

…and on it went. We skipped back and forth between shades of meaning that almost but never quite matched up. Though we did finally conclude that súgradh and sùgradh did indeed mean the same thing—to play in general, like how children just play. Or better still, how we were playing in the interstice between our languages.

My second encounter with Gàidhlig was also in Canada, though at the opposite end of the country on Cape Breton Island. As was also the case in Vancouver, I was impressed with how much Gaelic many Scottish-Canadians knew, even if only song lyrics—they had a lot of songs memorised. The language seemed to be such a focal part of the Scottish diaspora experience, much more so than in Irish-American and Irish-Canadian communities I’d been a part of. It gave me the impression that Gàidhlig must be quite strong in Scotland. However, these experiences turned out to be a bit misleading, as Gaelic has probably less than 60,000 fluent speakers and is under an enormous amount of pressure in modern Scottish society.

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 20.33.15.png “Scotland without Gaelic, Scotland without a soul!”

In fact, this kind of false, perhaps naïve positivity that one can gain from token or ceremonial language use, is a point of warning in a Gaelic language revitalisation proposal published recently by Misneachd, a grassroots organization formed in 2016 with the aim of promoting and strengthening Gaelic in Scotland.

Misneachd cautions against looking at the current situation of Gaelic in Scotland as anything other than an urgent crisis that requires radical intervention if it is to survive at all as a community language of future generations. Their proposal comes in response to the National Gaelic Language Plan 2018-2023, drafted by Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which Misneachd basically deems too little too late. While they do not reject everything mapped out in the plan, their own 100+ page response contains a comprehensive set of suggestions and strategies that call for a much more serious response to the state of the Gaelic language: stronger determination, higher demands and more drastic action. In short, more radical.

I personally find Misneachd’s Radical Plan for Gaelic very inspiring and think that any community involved in revitalizing or reviving their traditional language could benefit from the empowerment and spirit that Misneachd embodies. After reading all of their suggestions, two overlying perspectives stuck out to me as very important and unfortunately often overlooked in language revitalization programmes: comprehensive care for the community and advocating for the linguistic rights of the community.


Misneachd’s community-focused approach is nothing short of logical, practical and just good planning. However, this basic unit of society is often not given its due attention in language revival movements, perhaps due to its overwhelming scope. Indeed, “community” involves every aspect of our lives and the task of community reform or care can seem simply too daunting to take on. True to their name, though, Misneach (Gaelic for ‘courage’) argues against shying away from such a large task, instead advocating for grassroots organization and efforts, building from the ground up.

The focus of many language revitalization or reclamation programs has been bilingual education. Often the logic behind this is that the younger generations will learn more easily and will be the ones to carry on the language in the future. The problem with this, as Misneachd’s report points out, is that if the language is only used in schools and does not establish itself as the default community language, there are no real chances of its long term survival into the future. And in order for a minority language to be the default in a community, two thirds of the population must speak it fluently; otherwise it just won’t stick (p. 35). This certainly will not happen through bilingual education in schools alone. Therefore, a broader approach that involves the entire community is needed.

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Plan Radaigeach airson na Gàidhlig, p. 6

Among adult speakers, one of the biggest worries about Gaelic is that it is transitioning ever more rapidly from being a community language to a network language. This means that the major hubs of language use are no longer established and sustainable (usually rural) communities that speak the language naturally and produce new generations of speakers, but rather mobile, non-tangible communities of mostly adult L2 speakers that network and create events or spaces in which to use their language, but rarely manage to incorporate the language into every stratum of their daily lives. A good example of this can be seen in online communities, which—no doubt—are invaluable for their help in bridging geographic distance and giving more people access to media, instruction and resources in minority languages, but a Facebook group on an online message board cannot replace a live, in-person community. More importantly, as Misneachd’s report points out, network communities have been shown to fall short of true language revival (p. 9).

In order to put more effort and resources towards community building around Gaelic language revitalization, Misneachd recommends mandatory language plans for any area with a 20% or more Gaelic-speaking population. This would ensure that the country is keeping track of and utilising significant populations of Gaelic speakers as well as seeing that they get the support that they need to connect with neighbours and other community members in their language, to ensure that their children can be educated in their language and to maintain or grow the numbers of speakers. Such language plans would include strategies for increasing Gaelic usage and visibility in the arts, school system and local economy as well as increasing access to (subsidized!) Gaelic language classes for adults. To carry out these plans, full-time language development workers would be stationed in every Gaelic-speaking community in Scotland.

In addition to supporting existing Gaelic-speaking communities, Misneachd also calls for the radical creation of new residential communities. Using the Gaeltacht community of Shaw’s Road in Belfast as inspiration, they propose the establishment of ecovillages, communes, community-run estates and new planned (Gaelic-speaking) villages, such as Kilbeg on the Isle of Skye. Many of these communities could be centered around a project or business model that may have nothing to do with Gaelic but would be carried out in Gaelic, integrating the language naturally into the local economy and creating Gaelic-speaking jobs outside of the bilingual education system. Such structures could also engage in master-apprentice programmes whereby a younger individual is paired with an older native speaker to learn a trade through the medium of Gaelic. Not only does this make the language more viable and relevant for younger speakers, but it also provides opportunities to combat the loneliness and trauma that many older speakers experience living in rural areas, detached from their native language.

At this point, most people are probably thinking that this all sounds great in theory, but how will it be funded? This is, of course, a real concern, and without financial support from the government, most of the above would probably not be feasible. Affordable housing and land purchasing schemes are needed to even make it possible for many people to remain in Gaelic-speaking regions, let alone move there. Language plans must be funded, and language officers must be paid. Teachers must see some financial incentive for the extra effort of entering Gaelic-medium education. Bilingual schools must receive the same level of support and same quality of resources that English-medium school receive. And Misneachd does not shy away from this reality, but instead makes a compelling argument for why it is the government’s duty to make this funding available and the Gaels’ right to receive it.

linguistic rights

Minority languages generally face the challenges that they face because they are grossly undervalued—both by society at large and even the speakers themselves. Part of Misneachd’s appeal is that they are so unapologetic in their demand for recognition of the value of their language by the government and Scottish society in general. The report talks about the pressure that Gaels feel under the encroachment of mainstream culture. Every day they are denied their rights to a traditional way of life and must bow to the wishes of the English-speaking majority. Misneachd describes this simply as cultural genocide, referencing the UN’s definition of the term.

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Plana Radaigeach arson na Gàidhlig, p. 32

In practical terms, Misneachd advocates pushing back against this force simply by no longer settling for unidirectional bilingualism—i.e. the phenomenon whereby all Gaelic speakers are expected to speak English when even just one English speaker is present, but no English speaker is ever expected to have any knowledge of Gaelic whatsoever, much less accommodate the Gaelic speakers present. In fact, Misneachd’s goal is 100% bilingualism in Gaelic-speaking areas for anyone resident there for more than 5 years. This would be encouraged with 6 months of free, full-time language instruction for new residents. For children in areas such as the western isles, English-medium education would be phased out altogether, and special attention would be given to heritage speakers, who may have a solid passive understanding of Gaelic but are English-dominant and come with their own unique set of needs in adapting to Gaelic-medium education. This is indeed controversial, but such is the urgency of the current situation of Gaelic in Scotland. To effect any lasting change, society must adapt to accommodate the language. Misneachd’s proposals are meant to be a wake up call and a call to radical action.

Naturally such heavy demands much come from a place of great self-worth and empowerment. To me, this is Misneachd’s strongest and most compelling point. They call for recognition of Gaels as an ethnic minority, due all the protections and rights that come with such a designation. As an ethnic minority, Gaels could have legislation to protect traditional ways of life, preventing big business or the government policy from interfering with the local economies that sustain traditional communities. Gaels would also be protected against hate crimes. Sadly enough, speaking Gaelic still can result in acts of violence, harassment and vandalism. These acts should not only not be tolerated, but should be prosecuted and treated as series acts of cultural genocide. When put in these terms, it is hard to deny the Scottish government’s moral obligation to protect and support the traditional ways of Gaelic Scotland, language included.

Democratic political autonomy should also be secured for the Gaels. Misneachd makes reference to the Sami Parliament as a possible model for how Gaels could have more power in issues that affect their existence and certainly the existence of their language. Gaels are always used as the emblematic face for Scotland. Bagpipes, tartans, kilts and even the Gaelic language are used to draw in tourist revenue and promote an attractive national image, distinct from the rest of the UK. In exchange for this, though, those actually trying to live this traditional lifestyle are brushed aside, expected to compromise and abused when they speak up for their rights. Misneachd is absolutely correct when they say that Gaelic IS a political issue. I believe that trying to play down its political significance means complacency with the situation at hand and turning a blind eye to the systematic and intentional suppression of a very important piece of world heritage.

Now is not the time to rest on one’s laurels. Gaelic speakers have the right to exist as a true community in their native land. Securing this right and maintaining these communities will be a struggle, but aiming high is the only way it will ever happen. I’ll end with one final point that I was really happy to see in Misneachd’s report:

We should remember that the struggle for Gaelic and other minority languages is part of the wider struggle for social justice, human rights and protection of the environment. Gaelic speakers must stand in solidarity with other progressive movements in Scotland and across the world – including but not limited to other language movements. (p. 97)

I think this demonstrates that this small, grassroots group knows the magnitude of the challenges it faces but draws strength from the fact that they are not alone in their struggle. This is one of the most important lessons that language revitalization and revival projects around the world could learn from. The battle begins right where you are standing, but a wealth of support can be found far and wide.

A copy of Misneachd’s Radical Plan for Gaelic is available for free here.

comparing Breton and Irish, part 2 – the outer struggles

Having looked at the structure and lexicon of Breton and Irish a bit, it is easy to see the relationship between these two celtic cousins. Considering that languages can only evolve so fast it is no surprise, even after centuries of separation, that historically related speech communities would still have some degree of linguistic kinship. What I find more interesting, though, is that despite several hundred years of separate social, political, and cultural development, Breton and Irish find themselves in very similar situations in the modern world, sharing many of the same challenges and difficulties. I believe this helps us to see that, circumstances aside, the plight of any minority language generally boils down to a few key social, political, and financial disadvantages and/or injustices.

As an Irish speaker, I feel an immense amount of empathy for and solidarity with the struggles of the Breton speaking community. I hear about different ways in which the use of Breton is condemned, judged, or mistrusted, and it sounds just like Irish speakers relaying their own experiences—so similar are the stories. I hear about the frustration felt by speakers of a language for which there is wide public support in theory, but very narrow support in terms of action or government intervention. The frustration is familiar as it seems to be a topic of conversation every time I turn on Raidió na Gaeltachta or read Tuairisc. Ultimately, what I am witnessing are the effects of the shared trauma of having the mother tongue stripped away from entire generations of speakers over and over again until the remaining generation of young native speakers is just barely holding on for survival.  

Taken from reddit user targumures


In a seminar I attended in Quimper last summer, an interesting point was made about the first stages in the decline of Breton, and probably of any language. The beginning of the language’s decline was marked by the loss of the native language elite. That is, once the language was no longer spoken by the upper classes of society, the damage was probably irreversible and would only worsen.

Breton was the primary language spoken in Brittany, and it was even the language of the nobility up until the 12th century when political instability led to shifts in power and an increase in the use of French. Scholars say that once the language ceased to be spoken by the nobility and French gained political and economic clout, that constituted a tipping point for the Breton language, after which it would only see a steady decrease in numbers of speakers.

The same might be said of Irish, though the tipping point would have been reached a bit later in the 17th and 18th centuries. With the colonization of Ireland by England, Irish fell further and further into disuse in the eastern parts of the country around urban centers and seats of government. The Irish people came to see English as the only vehicle out of farming and poverty and thus equated it with “progress” and “the future”. Though many claim that the Irish language played an important role in the modernization of Ireland, the language shift had already begun and the point of no return may well have been reached long before the so-called “Great Famine” when devastating numbers of Irish-speakers were lost to both starvation and emigration.

The importance of the “native language elite” is very understandable in the contemporary context of language loss. Time and time again, we see that the educated gentry turn to dominant languages—languages of the colonizer—such as English, French, Spanish, Chinese, or Portuguese. Meanwhile the fate of smaller, more local languages rests on the shoulders of the disenfranchised, geographically isolated, and oppressed. Without currency among the elite, these languages become associated with the past, a lack of education, a lack of opportunity, and poverty. People begin to see their language as something that is holding them back.

The result of this for both Breton and Irish was that the languages became tied to smaller and more isolated communities, eventually falling out of use in the public realm in general. Breton and Irish were languages of the home or, at best, of the village, seldom used with outsiders unless sufficient trust or in-group rapport had been established.

Such insularism was reinforced by the penalization, even criminalization, of both Breton and Irish by the French and British governments respectively. In British-occupied Ireland, Irish-speaking school children were often forced to wear a bata scoir around their necks. This was a wooden dowel or stick on which the schoolmaster would carve a notch every time the child was caught speaking Irish. At the end of the week the notches were tallied up and the child was punished, most likely beaten, that many times.

In Brittany, a similar technique was employed by the French, whereby a simple object such as an iron ring, tin can, or wooden shoe was deemed le symbole or la vache and was hung around a child’s neck as a humiliating punishment for speaking Breton in school. In a sinister twist, the only way a child could get rid of le symbole was to report another child for speaking Breton, and at the end of the day the child who was stuck with le symbole would be beaten or assigned manual labour. This naturally turned the children not only against their language but also against each other. Incidentally, this type of punishment remained in practice well into the 1940’s.


The younger generations had the language literally beaten and shamed out of them, and this is where the issue of trauma really begins. These two languages became associated with suffering, shame, judgement, inferiority, and servitude. The physical and psychological violence inflicted on entire generations of people in both countries is hardly ever acknowledged, much less processed or deconstructed by the subsequent generations, and as a result, there really does seem to be something pathological in the modern day relationships of Brittany and Ireland to their own languages.

Part of the reason that Breton and Irish are not spoken more in the public realm is the amount of shame (or other dysfunctional emotions resulting from shame) tied to the languages themselves and then, ironically, to one’s own inability in speaking them. If you try to speak Irish to a stranger in Ireland, you can expect a range of resentful responses from an annoyed “Why don’t you just speak English?” to a defensive “Who do you think you are?” or even “You think you’re more Irish than me?” You might also find a few people willing to go along with it, but mostly people will just be annoyed.

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Comment under a poll: When was the last time you spoke Irish?

In fact a recent tweet reveals just how much disdain people still endure for speaking Irish in public or even having Irish-language names. Again, this is intolerance by Irish people in Ireland for a language that is called…Irish.

In Brittany I was told of younger Breton speakers in the past complaining that they had a hard time using Breton with older speakers because the response was often: “I CAN speak French, you know. I’m not stupid.” In both cases, there is an incredible amount of linguistic dysfunction and insecurity in the presence of these languages. Ultimately this stems from the historic lack of value put on Breton or Irish and an ingrained notion that these languages are good-for-nothing dead-ends that only highlight one’s otherness rather than one’s place in a community.

I believe that these injuries constitute a community trauma, the effects of which are still present today. The communities have essentially been gaslighted into believing that the abandonment of their language was actually in their best interest. This applies just as easily to younger generations who grew up entirely without their language. They are still programmed to subconsciously believe that they are better off for having English or French as their first language. Programming like this fuels the “betrayal” mechanism of trauma, which allows the community to ignore the fact that they were wronged, much as an abused child blocks out the abuse of its caregiver for the sake of survival, as a coping mechanism. People often say “it’s a shame” that they don’t have the language of their grandparents, but they have been trained to believe that the dominance of English or French was ultimately for their own good. In an individual, this kind of thinking on a subconscious level keeps the trauma alive as it manifests in other areas of the psyche. One must wonder if something similar happens collectively on a community level. Does the trauma of previous generations with a language necessarily have an effect on the younger generations’ receptivity or inclination to learn it?

ablamour m'en deus komzet brezhoneg
“Because he spoke Breton!”

The trauma of language loss has not gone unnoticed by those working in the field of medicine in Brittany. Professor Jean Jacques Kress, from the faculty of medicine at the University of Brest writes:

Les grands parents parlent le breton, les parents sont bilingues et les enfants ne parlent que le français. En fait, la perte est intergénérationelle. Elle diffuse dans l’inconscient et est donc non brutale comme certains ont voulu le faire croire. On peut néanmoins, en se fondant sur l’observation psychiatrique, préciser de quelle nature est cette perte. On remarque en effet, nettement, une difficulté plus grande d’expression portant tout particulièrement sur l’affectif, les relations inter-humaines et la sensibilité individuelle. C’est ce que nous appelons l’alexithymie. Il n’est pas impossible, que cela soit une composante de la tendance à la dépression caractéristique des Bretons.

(The grandparents speak Breton, the parents are bilingual and the children only speak French. The loss is actually intergenerational. It diffuses into the unconscious and is therefore not violent as some would have you believe. Nevertheless, based on psychiatric observation, one can specify the nature of the loss. One can actually notice greater difficulty in expression in terms of emotions, human relations and individual sensitivity. This is what we call alexithymia. It is not impossible that this may be a factor in the tendency towards depression that is characteristic of the Breton people.)

And in fact, statistics show that Brittany has particular struggles with mental health. The rate of depression is measured at 20% above the national average and the rate of death by suicide is 65% higher than the national average.

Furthermore, substance abuse plays a role as well. Compared with the rest of France, there are 43% more alcoholism-related deaths before the age of 65, and Bretons are 80% more likely to experiment with heroin.

Marcel Texier, former president of Bretons du Monde (OBE), reflects on the link between these social problems and the loss of language:

De nombreux psychiatres ont établi une corrélation indiscutable entre la prévalence de l’alcoolisme et du suicide en Bretagne et la dévalorisation et la perte de la langue. Dieu merci, les choses sont en train de changer. J’en parlais, il y a quelques années, au Docteur Guy Caro, co-auteur d’un livre sur le sujet. “Le tableau est moins sombre qu’il y a quelques décennies”, m’a-t-il dit, “manifestement, dans la mesure où la langue bretonne, l’identité bretonne se portent mieux, l’alcoolisme régresse.”

(Many psychiatrists have established an indisputable correlation between the prevalence of alcoholism and suicide in Brittany and the devalorization and loss of the language. Thank god, things are changing. I was talking about it a few years ago with Dr. Guy Caro, co-author of a book on the subject. “The situation is less bleak than it was a few decades ago,” he told me, “clearly, as the Breton language and the Breton identity fare better, alcoholism decreases.”)

It is not surprising, that we can see similar phenomena in Ireland. A UNICEF study last year revealed that Ireland has one of the highest teen suicide rates in the European Union, yielding 10.3 suicide per 100,000 as compared with the national country average of 6.1. On top of that, nearly 40% of drinkers in Ireland typically binge while drinking, and for almost a quarter of them, this is a weekly occurrence. These problems are no doubt multi-factorial, but one cannot ignore that they can more or less be expected in communities that have had their language taken away.

One report by Hallett, Chandler, & Lalonde notes a significant correspondence between aboriginal language knowledge and lower youth suicide rates in First Nations communities of B.C., Canada. Ghil’ad Zuckermann and Michael Walsh go further in their paper on Barngala language revitalization in Australia and discuss language as central to a people’s well-being, drawing a relationship between language gain and increased mental health.

Xavier Grall

The outspoken Breton poet Xavier Grall touched on this theme in writing about his own experience outside of his language. Grall grew up in Paris but eventually renounced city life and moved back to Brittany to live off of the land and raise his family. He struggled immensely with not knowing the Breton language and wrote and debated extensively about its centrality to the Breton identity, albeit in French. He referred to the state of living outside of one’s own language as “cette atroce division mentale”—this agonizing mental division.

Nous sommes condamnés au dédoublement. Tous. D’abord, nous avons la malchance d’écrire dans la langue française. Nous avons cette tare de ne point connaître la langue de notre personnalité. Ensuite, nous vivons de la France qui fut, paraît-il, notre mère ! A Paris, ce dédoublement peut aller jusqu’à la folie. (…) Les équivoques sont constantes. La gueule double de Janus. Au risque de passer pour félon aux yeux des uns et des autres.

(It is our curse to have to live as divided beings — all of us. First because we must unfortunately write in the French language, since we suffer from the shameful affliction of not knowing the language of our own personality. Secondly, we make our living off France which was, so we are told, our mother! In Paris, this division of the self can lead to tragedy. It may drive some to madness, “the kind you lock up”, as Rimbaud said. One is constantly torn between two selves, like a two-headed Janus. With the risk of being taken for a traitor by everyone in the end.)

Grall, Mémoires de ronces (English translation by Gary German)

A teacher of mine recalled psychiatrists in Brittany in the 70’s telling him that at least 50% of their elderly patients were dealing with trauma due to language loss. This would have been the generation of Bretons who grew up in entirely Breton speaking environments only to see their language nearly vanish during the course of their lives. Philippe Carrère, psychiatrist and founder of the Société bretonne d’ethnopsychiatrie also touches on this loss and the collective implications thereof in his two volume work Ethnopsychiatrie en Bretagne.  

If we can hone in on one general pathological theme as concerns the modern day rejection of Irish and Breton, it would have to be “shame”. There is the shame of having lost the language in the first place, a feeling felt by all generations. There is also the shame beaten into the older generations for having spoken an “inferior” or “backward” languages. And finally, there is the shame of the younger generations for not being able to speak their national language, often a raw nerve that is easily aggravated when confronted with the fact that these language do in fact still exist and can’t just be swept under the rug. Whichever variety, this shame is a destructive force on the psyche. It causes one to dissociate from the group to which they belong, and this ultimately contributes to fragmentation in society.

“It is forbidden to speak Breton and spit on the ground.”

xenolects and totemization

Aside from the psychological problems related to intergenerational trauma that Breton and Irish share (along with countless other languages in similar situations), there exists a host of other parallel problems that mirror each other.

First of all, because both languages were relegated to home life and were only used as community languages in the most isolated areas, the differences between the various dialects were reinforced and perhaps even enhanced. Just as a Breton speaker from Bro Leon might hardly understand a Breton speaker from Bro Gwened, an Irish speaker from An Daingean will certainly have to pay more attention to understand someone from Tory Island. Differences in pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, and to some extent grammar meant that once revitalization movements began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the leaders of these movements were met with the question of exactly which variety of the language they were promoting.

In the case of Irish, the three main dialect branches are not so divergent as to be irreconcilable, and an official standard, An Caighdeán Oifigiúil, was developed that incorporated characteristics of all three varieties. Breton, though, had a bigger challenge considering that the Gwened varieties of the language differ significantly from the other three dialect groups (Leoneg, Kernewek, and Tregereg). This resulted in two spelling standards: KLT for the latter dialects and another orthography (or more) for Gwenedeg.

In all instances, though, these standards, seen as necessary for the effective teaching and dissemination of the languages, have not always been well received by native speakers themselves. There are many stories of native Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht being perplexed by the Irish of Dubliners who had come to practice their language skills. These outsiders are often seen as speaking something very artificial and awkward sounding, hardly considered Irish at all by native speakers. Poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh speaks of Gaeilge mhaide na leabhar—wooden Irish from books—the way people in his Donegal Gaeltacht would refer to the non-native, standardized Irish that outsiders would speak when visiting.

Now that there are generations of children who have learned to speak fluent Irish through the Irish-medium Gaelscoil system, there is a considerable population of Irish speakers whose main dialect of Irish is this so-called artificial, wooden Irish. This variety of Irish lacks many of the phonological intricacies of Gaeltacht varieties of Irish and uses many English-influenced constructions and calques, yet also employs artificial-sounding, neologisms where native speakers from the Gaeltacht would generally just use an English word. The resulting language is often labelled a xenolect, a variety that on the surface resembles the original language but lacks many of the fundamental elements. Many native speakers of Irish claim that Gaelscoil Irish lacks the essence or spirit of Irish, some going so far as to say that the language would be better left to die out altogether. This creates a definitive rift between the communities of native speakers in the Gaeltacht and the often urban-based language enthusiasts who carry the language forward, albeit in an altered form.

Michael Hornsby very concisely sums up the phenomenon on his blog

The situation is indeed complicated, and quite tense, as people who grew up speaking the language try to make sense of their position in relation to these ‘new’ speakers, whose presence can reinforce a sense of double alienation – firstly, from deep memories of actively being discouraged from using the language publicly and an associated sense of shame of being a minority language speaker; and secondly, by the appearance, in their later years, of younger speakers who say they are speaking the same language as them, but who sound markedly different from what they remember growing up. For new speakers, who are attempting to reconnect with their immediate heritage or who are symbolically resisting globalization through learning a local, non-majority language, this confusion on the part of older, native speakers can produce in them a sense of entrenchment or defensiveness.

A similar xenolect situation has arisen in Brittany out of the Diwan schools, Breton-medium schools that have been growing in popularity since the late 1970’s. One of my Breton teachers cautioned us against the many imperfections and francismes used in Breton-speaking TV and radio programs, which are often presented by the progeny of the Diwan school system. The ever-present Daoust hag-eñ…? is an overused interrogative construction mirroring the French Est-ce que…? Another example is Bez ez eus…—there is—which is not technically incorrect but is overused in non-native Breton probably because it mirrors French word order more closely than the other possible sentence patterns for “there is”. Such constructions are often cumbersome to the native ear but they are common in Diwanek varieties of Breton which, for better or worse, seem to be here to stay.

Diwan schools around Brittany

Another modern day problem that revitalized languages often face is their own totemization. Revitalization movements often put a lot of focus on the visibility of the language. This may entail using the language in public and official signage (generally alongside a more dominant language), short utterances in the language to introduce important cultural or political speeches, the usage of isolated, sometimes untranslatable words from the revitalized language when speaking the dominant language, etc. And it is true that all of these instances increase the visibility of the language, but they usually do not do much for the actual state of the language itself. Bilingual road signage is ubiquitous in Brittany and Ireland, but this doesn’t change the fact that you can scarcely find the languages spoken in public anywhere.

Such signs are token nods to the existence of the language in question, but these gestures often do little more than give people a false sense of security and complacency. They can make a people feel that their language is more viable than it actually is, and, more to the point, that somebody else is taking care of it.

In fact, if we take into consideration the intergenerational shame that many are walking around with, these constant reminders of the existence of the language, coupled with the average person’s inactivity or lack of personal engagement with the language, may just perpetuate subconscious feelings of shame or resignation. By this, I by no means wish to say that surface gestures visibility towards revitalized languages are necessarily destructive, but rather that they must be supported by active engagement of the population to use and incorporate their language into their daily communication. Otherwise, their language will run the risk of totemization and its progress in the process of revitalization will be stunted.

political challenges

Totemization brings up another risk in that it can reduce the language to a superficial symbol that is widely recognized but seldom thought about or explored on a deeper level. This is exactly the kind of symbol that can be easily co-opted for political or other reasons and used to push an agenda that has nothing to do with the preservation of the language itself. Ultimately such exploits will deeply hurt the revitalization movement.

A prime example of this is the use of the Breton language and other cultural motifs in the Nazi-sympathizing Breton nationalist movement of the 30’s and 40’s. A portion of Breton nationalists saw the Nazi occupation as their way out of French occupation, and one publication that served as a platform for this sentiment was the militantly nationalistic Breiz Atao—Brittany Forever. The publication’s contributors were French-speaking, Breton intellectuals who co-opted the Breton language for the title of their publication but did nothing to actually promote it. The language was simply used as an empty symbol to promote otherwise unrelated ideologies. By the time the war was over, there had been enough use of the language and other cultural symbols to push the collaborationist, nationalistic agenda that it hurt the image of the Breton language and identity, and this most likely contributed in part to the increased speed of decline over the following decades.

This problem continues today. As I was researching this article, I discovered that there is now a website called Breiz Atao hosting mostly political content taking a very xenophobic, nationalistic stance on current issues. It appears to speak in the name of Brittany and the Breton language, but their content is little more than inflammatory scapegoating. It’s easy to rally behind a flag and language, but dedicating oneself to learning a language, particularly a very small, regional language, requires a certain amount of inner reflection and generally breeds acceptance and openness. I suspect Breiz Atao has no interest in such openness.

In Ireland, particularly in the north, the language simply cannot escape politics. While political agendas have motivated many to learn and use the language, as we are seeing today with the movement to demand an Irish Language Act, there are still those who associate the Irish language with nothing more than the Provisional IRA and dismiss its legitimacy entirely. In a recent editorial, Northern Irish protestant Richard Irvine reflects on the attitudes in his community towards the Irish language:

The Irish language, to me, and to the vast majority of my peers, was never a real language—rather, it was a treachery, a plot, and a Machiavellian political scheme of the disloyal and the dangerous.

And this is part of the reason that the government in Northern Ireland remains suspended. Petty fear is preventing the DUP from allowing itself to sign off on an Irish language act, despite the fact that Irish, particularly in West Belfast, is vibrant and far from being just a totem language. This stalemate illustrates a problem shared by Irish, Breton, and many other minority languages—that the powers that be find these languages to be such a threat to the status quo that they simply refuse to cede them any recognition whatsoever. 

Renewable Heat Initiative allegations
“IRISH LANGUAGE ACT NOW!” taken from the Belfast Telegraph

moving forward

What excites me the most when I look at the Breton and Irish revitalization movements nowadays, is the grassroots activism aimed at engaging people with their language and evoking an emotional response and connection to it. One of the major problems today is that people feel no ownership of their national languages, either because of linguistic inability or lack of exposure. The youth need to find a home in the language, and older native speakers need to warm up to the idea that languages change and the Irish and Breton of today won’t sound the same as they did 50 years ago.

In Brittany, groups like Ai ‘ta have succeeded in creating engaging, theatrical public actions, pop-up classes and other gatherings to give people a chance to interact with and show support for their language. For learners or Diwan speakers, it creates a welcoming context in which to use Breton outside of the classroom, and for native speakers it introduces the concept of taking pride in Breton and shedding some of the shame that has kept people from using it publicly.

A Breton “die in” protest organized by Ai ‘ta, taken from Ouest France

In Northern Ireland An Dream Dearg has awakened considerable support for and engagement with the Irish language in the fight for an Irish language act, legislation protecting the language. People have taken to the streets to make their demands for linguistic rights and recognition known. Again, I think the importance here lies in taking the language out of the classroom and showing people, particularly young people, that it does have relevance to their lives and their identity and that they can take ownership of and responsibility for it. Without this ownership, the language is just another thing they are subjected to. Furthermore, without a sense of ownership over the language, people are not really able to recognize that something was stolen from them, and without acknowledging this, it is hard to heal the collective wound and linguistic shame of the community as a whole.

Members of An Dream Dearg protesting for an Irish language act in Belfast, taken from Tuairisc.

I think that there is an important lesson to be learned here. Speakers of minority languages anywhere in the world—not only Breton and Irish—need to feel that they are the caretakers of their language, like they have some command over its fate. If a generation of children is taught that their language is a lost cause, there isn’t much incentive for them to be invested in it. However, if the language is framed as something that they belong to and can take responsibility for, their instincts to take care of it will engage and their relationship to their own language will be marked by pride instead of shame.

Breton and Irish speakers would do well to look towards each other for inspiration and support. The battle of a minority language is at times a very lonely one, and given the connection and similarities between these two Celtic gems, I believe they could easily find strength in each other’s company.

comparing Breton and Irish, part 1 – the inner workings

The Breton language tends to be unheard of outside of France except perhaps among Celtic language enthusiasts. Indeed, I first heard of the language from linguistic literature about the Celtic language family. Not much information was available to me at the time, but I became curious about the only Celtic language still spoken in continental Europe. My first exposure to Breton was through the online Breton language radio station An Tour Tan. I was intrigued from the first moment. The sound of the language was not at all what I was expecting; the heavy phonological influences from French, such as the uvular /ʁ/ sound and many of the vowels, caught me off guard. But there were some familiar things as well: the /x/ sound and something about the rhythm of the language, particularly with older speakers. I wanted desperately to pick out familiar words or phrases, cognates with Irish, but at this early stage no such similarities were apparent. Nevertheless, I was hooked and set about to tracking down materials for learning this low-profile gem of a language.

As I began to study whatever materials I could get my hands on, I started to be able to draw some lexical and syntactic connections to Irish. After visiting Brittany in 2008 and understanding a little more about the sociolinguistic situation there, certain political and cultural parallels became apparent as well. Thus my approach to the Breton language has always been influenced by my perspective as an Irish speaker, and I hope to outline here a few of the parallels that I’ve observed between the two languages.

The modern Celtic languages currently in use are marked in green. By Elevatorrailfan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

COGNATES – mind your P’s & Q’s

The most obvious similarities are found in the cognates that you will find between the two languages. Coming from different branches of the Celtic language family, there are not as many cognates between Breton and Irish as there are between Breton and Welsh, but there are certainly enough to give an Irish-speaker a leg up in learning Breton. Below is a small selection of related words that I’ve noted over the course of my studies.

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 05.21.27 p.m..png

A few additional cognates will point out one major difference between the two branches of modern Celtic languages, Goidelic and Brythonic. Goidelic languages (Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, and Manx) can also be classified as Q-Celtic, while the Brythonic languages (Breton, Welsh, and Cornish) can be labeled P-Celtic. This difference refers to a sound change whereby the Q-Celtic languages, in branching off from the other Celtic languages, replaced bilabial stops (represented by “P”) with velar stops (represented by “Q”). Hence, questions words in modern Breton such as pe, pet, penaos, peur are cognates with the Irish cé, cad, conas, and cá huair (who, what, how, when).

The word for “son” in the Gaelic or Q-Celtic languages is mac, commonly known from many surnames such as mine, MacEoghain, is mab in Breton and other P-Celtic languages. Incidentally, there is also a surname found in Breton, Abeozen (the M was lost at some point), which shares the same etymology as MacEoghainEoghan and Eozen both deriving from an old Celtic word meaning “yew”.

Penn is “head” in Breton, and is found in Irish as ceann. By extension, we find two more cognates empenn and inchinn, which both mean “brain”, i.e. “in the head”.


In addition to sound shifts there are also naturally shifts in meaning between cognates of the two languages.

Skuizh and scíth both in fact mean “tired”, though in Irish scíth nowadays has the more common meaning of “rest” and another word tuirseach is used to indicate “tired”.

The pair of antonyms uhel and izel, meaning “high” and “low” respectively, exists in Irish as uasal and íseal. While the meaning of íseal still has a lot of overlap with izel, uasal in Irish is used to mean “high” in the sense of “high-born” or “nobel”, but not in the sense of physically high or tall.

Dorn in Breton is “hand”, while the same word in Irish means “fist”.

Exhibiting another regular sound correspondence GW / F, gwenn meaning “white” in Breton shares its origins with fionn which is generally only used for “fair-haired” or “fair-skinned” in modern Irish.

Tud, “people” in Breton, is a cognate with the Irish tuath, which has the less general meaning of “people” in the sense of “a people” or “tribe” or even “lay people”.

Finally there are even occasional compounds or expressions that are shared by both languages:

den ebet / duine ar bith = anyone/no one (literally “a person in the world”)

ouzhpenn / os cionn = above (literally “over head”)

droug-penn / droch-cheann = headache (literally “painfull/evil head”)

buoc’hig-Doue / bóín Dé = lady bug (literally “little cow of god”)

With a little prodding, the surface differences between Breton and Irish begin to melt away and traces of kinship appear. But the lexicon just one aspect. If we look into the grammatical workings of Breton and Irish, we will find many more parallels.

MUTATIONS – ma vamm / mo mháthair

Mutations are another trait found in Breton that will be familiar to Irish speakers. The Breton mutations more closely resemble those in Welsh or Cornish, but there is a definite resemblance to Irish, both in phonology and application. An Irish speaker won’t bat an eyelash at the fact that “woman” in Breton is maouez but “the woman” is ar vaouez. After all, the same thing happens with “woman” in Irish, yielding bean and an bhean (here bh is pronounced as /v/). And the use of the mutation here is no surprise as both languages lenite feminine singular nouns after the definite article.

The only real difficulty for an Irish speaker is that Breton has four varieties of mutation, twice as many as in Irish. But the basic principles of sound change are the same and rules that block mutation in certain situations such as “the dental rule” can apply in both languages.

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 05.28.41 p.m.
taken from Ar C’hemmadurioù, Lodenn 4:
Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 05.29.06 p.m.
taken from Ar C’hemmadurioù, Lodenn 4:


SYNTAX – Penaos eo an amzer? / Conas atá an aimsear?

The word order of Breton presents some interesting challenges. Literature generally labels Breton as a VSO language, like all other Celtic languages, without paying attention to the fact that most sentences in Breton do not follow this pattern. Indeed subordinate clauses and negative statements are strictly VSO, so there is some basis, however underlying, for VSO categorization, but something else is happening on the surface. The pattern that we see most commonly is referred to as verb-second or V2, which is exactly how it sounds. The verb comes second and the first position is occupied by the subject, object, adverbial phrase, etc. Breton speakers tend to put into the first position whatever information is new or intended to be emphasized. As Stephen Anderson points out, the verb actually CANNOT be in the first position in most sentences. Curious for a supposedly VSO language.

This peculiarity didn’t strike me as particularly odd at first though, because I could easily find parallels in Irish to refer to. Irish stays fairly loyal to its VSO structure, but it can also make use of particles to introduce subordinate clauses, exactly as Breton does, in order to create sentences with a similar structure to Breton’s V2 sentences. In Irish this usage is generally limited for the purposes of emphasizing a particular idea.

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 10.31.53 p.m..png
taken from Intermediate Irish: A Grammar and Workbook by Nancy Stenson

The Irish examples still fit the VSO description with the copula is occupying the V position, but the particle a introduces a subordinate clause which contains the main verb (cheannaigh) of the sentence. Likewise, I believe that there may be an unrealised, implied copula of sorts in these Breton sentences that introduces a subordinate clause after the particle a or e and gives the V2 surface result.

The can be rendered into Breton as shown below (though admittedly I switched to the imperfect tense in Breton to preserve the parallel word order and use of particles, so it is…imperfect). The only thing missing is a copula at the beginning of the sentences:

Me a brenen ur c’harr e Doire dec’h.

Ur c’harr a brenen e Doire dec’h.

E Doire e prenen ur c’harr dec’h.

Dec’h e prenen ur c’harr e Doire.

The following passage caught my attention for exactly this reason. In this construction in Irish the copula in the initial position is generally omitted and just implied.

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 10.36.58 p.m.
taken from Intermediate Irish: A Grammar and Workbook by Nancy Stenson

Furthermore, this “do + infinitive” construction is very common in Breton. The above sentences can thus easily be rendered in Breton as:

Torriñ ar prenest a rae. = break-INF. the window PART. do-3SG.FUT.

Kouezhañ a ri! = fall-INF. PART. do-2SG.FUT.

So many sentences can be translated nearly verbatim from Irish to Breton, leaving out only the initial copula where it appears in Irish. I would have to look more into the structure of Old Breton to know if in fact there ever was a copula used in that position, but at the very least it is striking that two now distantly related languages still share a common flexibility in word order and that beneath the surface, their structures are not all that different.

Another characteristic shared between Breton and Irish is the behaviour of their prepositions. First of all, they both “conjugate” their prepositions, as do all other Celtic languages. That is, prepositions have specific inflected forms for each person, such as the Breton ganin, ganit, ganti (with me, with you, with her) which derive from the preposition gant (with). Not only that, but the usage of these prepositional forms is quite similar, even if the prepositions themselves differ. For example, possession or ownership is often expressed with prepositions:

Irish: Tá leabhar agam(lit. A book is at me.)

Breton: Ul levr a zo ganin. (lit. A book is with me.)

Both of these mean “I have a book” in one sense or another. Whereas both of the following mean “The book is mine”:

I: Is liomsa an leabhar. (lit. The book is with me.)

B: Din eo al levr. (lit. The book is to me.)

The past perfect is also expressed with personal prepositions in conjunction with the past participle:

I: Tá sé críochnaithe agam. (lit. It is finished at me.)

B: Echu eo ganin. (lit. It is finished with me.)

Both of these mean “I have finished it.”

Certain idiomatic expressions even hold up in both languages, such as in these two sentences which both mean “He succeeded (at it)”:

I: D’éirigh go maith leis(lit. It rose well with him.)

B: Dont a rae brav gantañ(lit. It came well with him.)

PERSPECTIVE – Is glas iad an cnoic i bhfad uainn.

Finally there are a few other details that I think beautifully illustrate both the linguistic and cultural ties between the Irish and the Bretons. The existence of the word glas in both languages is one example.

Glas in both Breton and Irish is the colour of nature, basically. In Irish I’ve heard it defined as “the natural colour of plants or things in nature”, and in Breton one teacher of mine defined it as “the colour of the sea”. In both languages, this means that glas could be translated into English as blue, green, grey, or even black depending on what is being described. Plants, trees, the sea, the sky, horses, wool, or someone’s eyes could all be glas. It’s a colour that includes a quality of vitality and nature. It is often translated as “green”, but both languages actually have words to describe things that are green but artificial or not found in nature: gwer in Breton and uaine in Irish. Your t-shirt may be green, but the grass is always glas.

Compass directions are another very interesting thing in Celtic languages. This summer the directional parallels between Breton and Irish became clear to me when a Breton teacher pointed out that in nautical terms kleiz (left) is used to mean “north” and dehoù (right) is used to mean “south”. So ar mor kleiz is the sea to the north of a ship and ar mor dehoù is the sea to the south, indicating a directional orientation towards the east. This reminded me of Irish, which uses the word soir (east) to mean “forward” or “ahead” and the word siar (west) to mean “back”. So if you ask someone to bog siar, you want them to move back, but you’re literally saying “move west”. The actual direction in which they move is irrelevant, but the language still reveals an orientation towards the east. Furthermore, the Irish word for south(ward), ó dheas, comes from the word deas, meaning “right”, though the same logic does not apply to “north(ward)” which is ó thuaidh instead of something related to clé (cf. kleiz).

artist: Isaac Emrick,

So here you have a brief introduction to some of the elements shared between Irish and Breton. The more Breton I learn, the more I see the similarities with Irish and the more I rely on Irish-language logic to speak and formulate ideas in Breton. Given their geographic separation and independent development, the amount of common ground that modern Irish and Breton share is astounding, though it may not be immediately apparent.

Aside from the linguistic richness that they share, though, they also sadly share many societal obstacles. In my next post, I will take a step back from the inner workings of Breton and Irish and focus more on the social and political challenges that these two languages face in the modern world.

Wikitongues: every language in the world

Today I’d like to take a break from my usual format to talk a bit about Wikitongues, what they do, and my volunteer work with them. Wikitongues is a non-profit organization whose basic aim is to empower people to document, share, and build community around their languages – every language in the world, to be exact. The original impetus to work with languages was the alarming rate at which they are dying across the globe. Around half of the roughly 6,000-7,000 languages spoken worldwide are in serious danger of dying out over the next century. Were this rate of extinction to happen ecologically, with half of all species dying out, it would be considered a catastrophic fate. Language death, in contrast, gets very little attention, as speakers of rich and beautiful languages are cornered into abandoning their mother tongue under economic, cultural, and political pressures. It seems that many believe that in order to survive, their language must die.

a video I contributed of my friend Suri speaking Yiddish

In the face of this dilemma, Wikitongues strives to celebrate linguistic diversity and create a platform for education, organization, and inspiration to fuel the preservation and revitalization of the world’s linguistic treasures. In addition to the ever-growing online database of personal narrative videos in dozens of languages, Wikitongues has also created the app Poly to aid in the documenting and sharing of words and phrases in any language. Ultimately, the success of Wikitongues depends on the involvement of community members, and I personally think that it is essential for any language preservation work to be community-driven.


Most recently, Wikitongues has also launched an online publication on Medium: The Wikitongues Blog. I’ve had the pleasure of volunteering on a team of great writers, providing long-form content to highlight lesser-known languages and the struggles they face in the modern world. My first project has been a five part series about Creole languages, which has been a wonderful opportunity to look more critically at the history and development of Creoles and their treatment in a Eurocentric world. You can find my articles here.

And to conclude my plug for Wikitongues, I encourage anyone interested to get involved. Create or collect quality video recordings to contribute to Wikitongues here or find out about other volunteer opportunities here. The work of language empowerment is never over, and it simply doesn’t happen without everyone doing their part.

Sichuanese: just a dialect of Mandarin or a language in its own right?

In 2001 I moved to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China. I had already spent a year in northeastern China studying Mandarin and wanted to spend some time seeing more of the country. Any linguistic map of China will clearly show that Sichuan is within the Mandarin-speaking zone of China, and that was part of the reason I chose the area. I wanted to take my Mandarin to the next level.

Upon arriving in Chengdu, however, I didn’t recognise the language spoken in the train station. “I wonder where those travelers are from, ” I thought. Heading out onto the street and into the city, I realised that everyone was speaking that way. This was my first encounter with Sichuanese (四川話).

“I thought that people in Sichuan spoke Pu Tong Hua (普通話, Mandarin),” I commented to my boss who had come to meet me at the train station. “No, we speak Sichuanese.” I found this strange, since I had never heard of Sichuanese, and every Chinese linguistics book I had ever read stated clearly that Mandarin (all be it sometimes called Southwestern Mandarin) was spoken in Sichuan. I decided that the linguistics books had a relatively useless notion of what “Mandarin” was and decided that they were wrong and Sichuanese was a language that nobody had studied seriously. This also proved to be a less than accurate assessment.

As time went on, I found myself understanding more and more Sichuanese without making much of an effort. I developed an ear for it and was able to extract a lot of Mandarin-based language from other people’s speech. The most striking characteristic of Sichuanese is its pronunciation – at times very nasal and with rather exaggerated tones, which are completely different from the tones in Mandarin. In fact, most words are phonologically similar or even identical to their Mandarin counterparts, except for the tone. For single words and short utterances, you can usually use context to understand and not be distracted by the “incorrect” tone of a word, but in a longer sequence of rapid speech these tone differences often render Sichuanese completely unintelligible to Mandarin speakers. You can listen to a Sichuanese speaker talking about his experience with the language and the way it is changing here.

Sichuanese also has a curious mixture of northern and southern characteristics, as far as pronunciation goes. Most varieties of Sichuanese (there are diverse local dialects throughout the province), do not have the denti-alveolar/retroflex sounds zh, sh, ch that northern varieties of Mandarin have. Instead these sounds are merged with the alveolar z, s, and c, respectively. This is typical of the accents of southerners when speaking in Mandarin. Sichuanese does, however, have the retroflex r sound, usually in the form of 兒化, or adding 兒 to the end of words, a typical northern Mandarin trait used as a diminutive ending.

Phonology is not the only sphere in which Sichuanese differs from Standard Mandarin though. Sichuanese has a lot of unique vocabulary that is not understood elsewhere as well as archaic or unusual usages which may be understood but are not expected or standard. The quintessential Sichuanese word is 巴适 /pa sɨ/, which can mean good, great, delicious, attractive – basically anything positive. It’s etymology is unknown, but some believe it to be a linguistic trace of long extinct Ba-Shu Chinese, an offshoot of Old Chinese.

Some common words with different meaning or usage in Sichuanese:

The word 存在, to exist, is used in the Sichuanese expression 不存在, literally “it doesn’t exist”which means “it doesn’t matter” or “you’re welcome” in response to a thank you.

得 is very commonly used in Sichuanese in unexpected ways. The first word a newcomer will probably encounter is 莫得/没得 /mo21dei21/, the Sichuanese version of 没有 “to not have, there is not”.

要得 is used to express “ok”, used the same as Mandarin 好/可以, and conversely “not ok” is 要不得.

The latter is also commonly expressed with 不得行, as opposed to the simpler Mandarin 不行, and emphatically it’s often heard as 硬是不得行. In written form this is understandable to a Mandarin speaker, however its pronunciation /en35si214 bu21 dei21 xing21/ certainly renders it more opaque.

Sichuanese also has a number of unique modal particles (语气词) that are added to the end of a sentence to give it a certain flavour or attitude. Mandarin has these as well, but Sichuanese makes far more extensive use of them and has some of its own unique modal particles as well.

嘛 is used in both Standard Mandarin and Sichuanese, but while 嘛 is an emphatic particle in Mandarin (often used to imply that something is obvious or to carry a tone of impatience), in Sichuanese it is used quite freely to indicate suggestion or agreement, much like 吧 in Standard Mandarin, cf. Standard Mandarin 好吧 = Sichuanese 好嘛. This often creates the illusion to outsiders that Sichuanese speakers are irritated or living up to the spicy reputation of their cuisine.

噻 /sæ44/ is used as an emphatic or imperative or to express definiteness. Many sentences with 肯定 “definitely” in them end with 噻. I’ve overheard someone being chastised with 你是个男的噻! /li53 si213 go læ21 di sæ44/ “You’re a man!”, i.e. “Be a man!/Man up!” Unfortunately some tropes seem to be universal.

嗦 /so21/ expresses suspicion or dissatisfaction. 你骗我嗦! /li53 piæ213 ngo53 so21/ “You’re cheating me!” This one is particularly useful in bargaining at the market or dealing with taxi drivers.

嘎 /ga44/ is a compact way to seek agreement, much like 对不对 in Standard Mandarin. 你的汉语说得好,嘎? /li53 di han213yu53 suo21 dei21 hao53 ga44/ “You speak Chinese well, don’t you?”

These are only a few common particles, but the everyday speech of the Sichuanese is thoroughly peppered with a wide assortment of such particles, sometimes tagging the end of almost every single sentence.

As far as grammar goes, there is not much difference between Sichuanese and Standard Mandarin, though there are some constructions that differentiate the two. Again, Sichuanese makes extensive use of the word 得, pronounced /dei21/. To say that you can speak Sichuanese, you might say 我说得来四川话, instead of the more standard 我会说四川话. Furthermore, to ask if someone speaks the language, you would ask 你说得来四川话不?, with an unapologetic 不 at the end. Indeed, this 不 is often tagged onto the end of yes-no questions, much the way one would use 吗 in Standard Mandarin. I can’t help but notice the similarity in usage with the Min Nan 无 /bo24/ and wonder if this 不 /bu21/ could be a leftover calque from Ba-Shu Chinese, considering that Min Nan and Ba-Shu both originally stemmed from Old Chinese. This is pure speculation, but therein lies the fun trying to piece together less documented “dialects”.

Going back to 要得 “ok”, to ask if something is ok the question is simply 要得不? And to reply negatively 要不得. 得 is also used to ask if something is likely to happen or not, as in the expression 得不得. Once on my final visit to a school in the south of Chengdu a student asked me 老师,得不得回来? /lao53 sei45 dei21 bu dei21 fei21 lai21/ “Teacher, are you going to come back?”, to which I sadly replied 不得.

“Why is Sichuanese a northern dialect?”

So how did these differences arise? And more importantly, how is it that a version of Mandarin, a northern Chinese language, came to be spoken in the south, the home of the most divergent and conservative Chinese languages? Sichuan’s linguistic history is actually quite unique. I mentioned traces of Ba-Shu Chinese possibly existing in the vocabulary of modern Sichuanese. Ba-Shu Chinese was actually the first Chinese language spoken in the area of modern day Sichuan. It was an off-shoot of Old Chinese (as opposed to most other varieties of Chinese which developed out of Middle Chinese), and though not much is known for certain, it presumably had a phonology that would have been very different from any variety of Chinese spoken today.

The Yuan Dynasty brought a significant population decrease due to Mongol invasions and illness. This significantly decreased the number of Ba-Shu Chinese speakers, and eventually the language was replaced by varieties of Mandarin spoken by in-coming migrants mostly from Hubei. Speakers of other Chinese languages such as Gan, Xiang, and Hakka also made their way to Sichuan, and these languages most likely exerted some influence on the formation of modern Sichuanese as well.

Today Sichuanese flourishes despite the constant pressure of Standard Mandarin. Some of the older pronunciations of words in Sichuanese are giving way to more standard, Beijing-type pronunciations, and many local words and expressions are falling out of use. The Sichuanese of young people today often resembles relatively standard Mandarin with a slightly compromised Sichuanese phonology. It isn’t the Sichuanese of 50 years ago, but it is still quite distinct and is definitely the preferred mode of communication for most people.

The government knows this and uses schools as a forum to encourage students and teachers to clean up their local “dialect” and use Standard Mandarin. Perhaps here more than anywhere else is the discrepancy between “Mandarin” and “Sichuanese” most apparent. Linguistically Mandarin is a broad category that refers to a sometimes loosely shared history with Ming and Qing Dynasty Guan Hua, “officials’ language”. This language was based on the speech of the northern capitals of Nanjing and Beijing, and spread across the northern plains via migration and government influence. In most of the south where the government’s grip was weaker, it never took hold and had only marginal effect on the Chinese languages there.

The PRC’s version of Guan Hua today is Putong Hua, an even more precise and prescriptive language based on the speech of Beijing and the northeast. Thus, Sichuanese may fall under the broader, linguistic category of Guan Hua (Mandarin) but it definitely falls outside of the confines of Putong Hua (Standard Mandarin). In short, Sichuanese is Mandarin and Putong Hua is Mandarin, but Sichuanese is definitely not Putong Hua.

Varieties of Mandarin

So is Sichuanese a language or a dialect then? There can be no easy answer to this question, given the varying definitions of languages and dialects and the different political and cultural agendas that influence such labeling. Linguistically, I would say Sichuanese could be considered to be a dialect of Mandarin, given its relatively short history and shared core development with other varieties of Mandarin.

However, and this is a big “however”, socially and culturally I push for the recognition of Sichuanese as a language. Aside from the obvious reasons such as lack of complete mutual intelligibility and significant lexical differences, I think that the situation of diglossia in Sichuan is important to consider. Sichuanese people, particularly young people, regularly code-switch between Sichuanese and Standard Mandarin. This code-switching isn’t limited just to vocabulary or the register of language used, but also includes switching phonological systems, i.e. tone systems, sound shifts, and sometimes accent. I even know people who have almost completely different voices depending on whether they are speaking Standard Mandarin or Sichuanese (incidentally, this type of person is always selected at school or work to make speeches or public statements because of their ability to differentiate so starkly between the standard and local speech).

This standard/local split creates a mechanism of identifying an in-group and an out-group. The rapport that results when speaking Sichuanese is unparalleled when speaking Mandarin in Sichuan, and it is this strength of identity that makes the most compelling argument for designating Sichuanese as a language. It is so integral to the Sichuanese identity and conveys the culture in a way that the more sterile Mandarin simply cannot. Beijing knows this – about Sichuanese and all other varieties of Chinese – and it is for exactly this reason that they are so preoccupied with reminding schoolchildren to 普通话, “please speak Mandarin”. Sichuanese will get no support from any official channels, so it is all the more important that people act to raise the profile of the language and push to use it wherever and whenever possible.

a sign in a Sichuan school reminding students to speak and write in Standard Mandarin

I will be posting some basic lessons in Sichuanese here. Please check back in the future for further installments.

Introduction to Sichuanese 四川话入门 – 1

language revitalization and the healing of collective trauma

There is a Sinéad O’Connor song that had a strong impact on me as a young person. It speaks of the loss of language, culture, history, and the effects it can have on a nation.  I revisited this song recently in response to some new information I learned about language revitalization and found new layers of truth in it. The song is called “Famine”:

Famine – full lyrics

The song begins:

Okay, I want to talk about Ireland
Specifically I want to talk about the “famine” 
About the fact that there never really was one
There was no “famine”
See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes
All of the other food
Meat fish vegetables
Were shipped out of the country under armed guard
To England while the Irish people starved
And then in the middle of all this
They gave us money not to teach our children Irish
And so we lost our history
And this is what I think is still hurting we

The Irish people and language suffered serious losses due to the occupation of Ireland by the English. Starting in the late 18th century, economic pressures and the flourishing of English in Dublin began to erode the security of the Irish language. Emigration and urban jobs were seen as ways out of poverty, and this meant that English, not Irish, was the language of the future. The days of Irish-speaking poets and nobility were long gone. The upper classes in Ireland were now exclusively English-speaking.

Nevertheless in 1800, Irish was still the main language of 85% of the country’s inhabitants. Written accounts by British visitors to Ireland describe the difficulty that many encountered in trying to communicate in English beyond the Pale. This would, however, change drastically over the next century. In 1831 the British established the National School system with English as the sole language of instruction, violently contributing to the decline of the Irish language and the stigma attached to it.

It is often said that the Irish language was beaten out of the people, and this is to be taken quite literally. National School children were forced to wear a small wooden stick hung on a string around their necks in order to monitor their language use. Every time they were caught speaking Irish the schoolmaster would cut a notch in the stick, and at the end of the day they would be beaten or punished that many times.

See we’re like a child that’s been battered
Has to drive itself out of it’s head because it’s frightened
Still feels all the painful feelings
But they lose contact with the memory


Meanwhile, people were forcibly removed from their lands and food became scarce as much of the farmland was used for raising beef cattle for export to England. Other crops and livestock were also sent to England in vast quantities. Furthermore, locals were prohibited from fishing and gathering seaweed, leaving them with little else to eat but potatoes. In 1845, when the Phytophthora infestans blight wiped out much of Europe’s potato crop, the Irish began to lose their main source of food and were simply left to starve.

Widespread death and emigration reduced the country’s population by about 20% over the next 10 years, and those remaining were often coerced to give up their religion and language for scraps of food. The Irish identity became synonymous with poverty, backwardness, shame, and inferiority, and many realised that the quickest way to make themselves seem more “civilised”, i.e. less Irish, was to simply speak English. By 1860 only about 30% of the population spoke Irish, and by 1921 that number was reduced to less than 15%. Almost a hundred years into independence, the stigma attached to Irish is still very real, and the language has never recovered.

So let’s take a look shall we
The highest statistics of child abuse in the EEC
And we say we’re a Christian country
But we’ve lost contact with our history
See we used to worship God as a mother
We’re suffering from post traumatic stress disorder
Look at all our old men in the pubs
Look at all our young people on drugs

In O’Connor’s song, she suggests that Ireland still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. It’s chilling to conceive of a mental health diagnosis on a national level – that a people affected by a trauma collectively suffer the symptoms that come with the inability to process and deal with that trauma, and furthermore, that these symptoms are echoed for generations to come. Recent research has in fact shown evidence of the effects of trauma on DNA – effects that are inherited in the DNA of subsequent generations.

As far as Irish is concerned, I personally have often thought that there is something pathological about Ireland’s relationship to its national language. The shame felt by our ancestors for speaking the language has now been converted into the shame that we feel for not being able to speak it, or for speaking it inadequately. The language has become something that divides us, rather than unites us. Those who speak Irish are often discouraged from using it by the reactions of those who do not. Speaking Irish in public can even be met with hostility, as if one’s use of the language is a challenge to another’s Irish-ness.

A TV Series on TG4, Ireland’s Irish language television station, tackled the question of what exactly would happen if someone simply went about their daily life in Ireland speaking only in Irish outside the Gaeltacht, or designated Irish-speaking regions. In No BéarlaManchán Magan took a road trip around the country speaking only in Irish and was met with a wide variety of reactions, ranging from curiosity to hostility, but almost never nonchalance. It’s as if speaking Irish is the least natural thing that Irish people could do with each other.

More recently, a column in the Irish Times written by Rosita Boland last May, sparked a heated national debate over the usefulness of Irish. Boland declared, “I do not like having my national identity pinned to a language I never use and cannot speak.” She laments the dry, lackluster way the language is taught in schools, and I agree that this is a tragedy. However she seems to equate her own lack of interest in the language to Irish being a completely useless language altogether. Her bitterness towards having had the language imposed on her in school is all too common.

In September of last year Cormac Ó Bruic, an Irish-speaker from the Kerry Gaeltacht, was forbidden from speaking Irish at his job in a Cork pub. The pub owner claimed that it was not about the Irish language itself but rather about practical communication, citing that he had an international staff of native speakers of several languages who all spoke English on the job. The difference that seems to elude Ó Bruic’s boss regarding the use of Irish in his pub is that his pub is in, well…Ireland.

Stories like this are by no means unusual, and Irish-speakers often have to take an almost apologetic approach to using the language. The country is clearly suffering some kind of linguistic identity crisis. Polls show that people feel favourably about the Irish language and believe it is an important part of Irish culture, but when it comes to actually engaging with it, all affection disappears and dysfunction reigns. Is this the PTSD kicking in?

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It’s perhaps not entirely useful to draw such a literal connection between the state of the Irish language and actual symptoms of PTSD in a human – I wouldn’t want to erase the experiences that individuals have with immediate trauma – but a few points of comparison are worth noting. “Efforts to avoid thoughts and activities” that are reminders of trauma could certainly describe much of Ireland’s disinterest or reluctance towards the language. Cormac Ó Bruin’s boss could be said to have had a sort of “exaggerated startle response” to Irish being spoken by his employees. Irritability and anger are not unheard of reactions to the use of Irish either. A bartender once snarled “Who do you think you are?!” at me for ordering a pint in Irish…in a Gaeltacht. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of Irish people out there who support the language, but non-supporters do seem to harbour an inordinate amount of hostility towards it.

So how do we heal? Or do we, as so many suggest, just be done with the language and put it  out of its misery? Revivalist linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann would argue that there is strong evidence in support of holding on to our heritage language, particularly for the sake of mental health. I recently took his online AdelaideX course entitled “Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages” in which he presents evidence gathered in Canadian and Australian aboriginal communities that links language revitalization with improved mental health on the community level. Communities that have retained their native languages or are engaged in the process of language revitalization are likely to have lower suicide rates and better overall mental health as compared with communities who have lost their languages. In essence, people thrive when they have a strong sense of identity and a strong sense of place in the world. The pride, sense of belonging, and well-being that can come with linguistic decolonization is not to be underestimated. This is what it means for a community to heal.

I think that O’Connor was really onto something with “Famine”, and I think that Ireland’s  complicated relationship with her language can be healed. Irish needs to be a source of pride rather than shame. The language has to be normalized again. We have to stop associating Irish with the isolated, rural Gaeltacht, and realise that the language is relevant anywhere in Ireland. We also have to work through our collective shame around our language’s decline and rediscover its value in the world of today. Then perhaps we can create a more hospitable environment for those who want to make Irish an active part of their every day lives.

And if there ever is gonna be healing
There has to be remembering
And then grieving
So that there then can be forgiving
There has to be knowledge and understanding

This is America, speak whatever language you want!

Yesterday, on the day of his inauguration, Trump made some bold changes to the White House website. Topics such as “LGBT Community”, “Climate Change”, “Civil Rights”, and “Native Americans” are not to be found on Trump’s website. Links that appeared on President Obama’s website such as “Accessibility” and “En Español”, both of which made the site’s content available to a broader range of people, are also now absent. Being a language person, the exclusion of a Spanish language option on the website caught my attention, as this is an issue I’ve often had to address with monolingual English-speaking Americans.

“This is America, speak English!”

This is a sentence we’ve all heard, in some version or another, many times. I’ve overheard it being said to others and had it said to me. It’s a message that is usually conveyed with a lot of contempt, superiority, and conviction. But for an idea with so much fervor behind it, it is incredibly easy to rebut. I always ask the aggravated individual, “So you think people should speak our nation’s official language? What would you say is the official language of the United States?” The answer is inevitably, “English, of course!” At which point I inform them that they are wrong and that the U.S. has no official language designated at the federal level. I’m not saying that this miraculously changes people’s narrow views on language use, but it is fun to see them get frustrated and squirm, and maybe, just maybe, they will reconsider their misinformed opinion for a quick second.

The English-only movement in the U.S. is not new, but in recent years it has become inseparable from anti-immigration sentiment and right-wing politics. Up until now, no legislation has been successful in declaring English the one and only official language of the country, but with the state of our current government, it is something to be concerned about. The problem is not so much about promoting the use of the English language in official contexts – that happens quite naturally. The problem is that the English-only movement is no longer about communication or efficiency at all. It’s about erasing other cultural identities and imposing a cultural standard for how to be a “true American”. It’s about denying people’s right to live in this country and about the assertion of a cultural supremacy (in many cases, white supremacy). By excluding the Spanish language from the White House website, where it once was found, Trump is sending a clear message to the 41 million native speakers of Spanish in the U.S. (yes, that’s 14% of the population): you no longer belong in this country.

Percentage of population speaking Spanish at home, By Vrysxy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This sentiment regularly leads to acts of discrimination and violence. Arabic speakers have been removed from flights for speaking their language, a woman was assaulted in a restaurant in Minnesota for speaking Swahili with her family, and most recently a couple was harassed in a Los Angeles supermarket for speaking Greek with each other. The U.S. is getting to be a country where people hesitate to use languages other than English for the sake of safety. This is not to say that having English as the official national language will automatically increase such attacks, but if English is going to be official, it should be for constructive and inclusive reasons that benefit everyone, not to entertain a vocal minority’s delusions about their authority over this land.

Another thing to consider is that a change in the United States’ relationship to languages other than English could have a positive effect on the levels of tolerance in the country. A recent article speaks about the link between learning languages and increased tolerance. Learning and being exposed to a language other than your own helps in “gaining cross-cultural understanding”, “dealing with the unknown”, and “tolerance for ambiguity”. This all helps people to better navigate unfamiliar situations, feel less anxiety, and have more motivation and confidence. For a society where tensions and intolerance appear to be on the rise, it seems that we would be foolish to limit ourselves even further to just one language.

Thirty-one of the fifty states have already established official state languages. In every case it is English, but in some states indigenous languages have been awarded official status as well. Hawaiian is co-official with English in Hawaii, and in 2014 Alaska’s official language act was amended to include, alongside English, 20 indigenous Alaskan languages: Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.

Official status for a language should not be something to fear, but it must be handled in the spirit of inclusion and not in order to erase the histories and identities of others. If the issue is approached with care and consideration, it could actually be of great help to many communities whose native languages have suffered under conditions of colonization and poverty. On that note, the next time I encounter “You’re in America, speak English!”,  I think I’ll simply reply with this:



I protested Trump’s inauguration in D.C. yesterday. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t just sitting at home doing nothing while the mastermind behind so much intolerance and fear-mongering stepped into the spotlight. Our protest looked like America. People of every colour, gender, religion, and background were present. There were even some Trump supporters wandering around in red “Make America Great Again” hats. People on stage spoke passionately about their concerns for the future. They spoke in English, yes, but also in Tagalog, Lakota, and Spanish, and the experience was all the richer for it. One Trump supporter commented loudly that the Spanish speaker on stage should “learn English” because “this is America”. Well, “En Español” links can be removed from websites, but the people of this country, speaking the countless languages that they speak, are not going anywhere. Eventually that man will have to admit that an English-only America is a limited and obsolete aspiration. He will have to learn that to willingly engage with Spanish or any other language doesn’t threaten you – it makes you a better person.

Last year, when a Trump presidency was just a seemingly unlikely nightmare, I wrote a post about learning Arabic as an act of solidarity. Today I’d like to repeat that message and broaden it to include all languages. One of the U.S.’s greatest assets is the multiplicity of languages and cultures, yet there are those out there (and they’re feeling pretty confident right about now) who want nothing more than to homogenize our society. Speak your languages in public loudly and clearly! Don’t let aggression and intimidation silence you. If you see someone being harassed or attacked because of their language (or race or culture or identity), stand by them and help them to feel safe. Make it known that intolerance serves no one, and make it known in the language of your choice.

Dehong Dai: a Tai language in Ruili, China

In January of 2002, while living in Sichuan, China, I packed my bags and headed south to while away part of the winter. A a change of scenery from monotonous, grey Chengdu was needed. Traveling southbound through Yunnan Province, I noticed a different atmosphere setting in as I headed for Ruili (瑞丽), a town on the border with Myanmar. All I knew of Ruili arriving was that it had the typical reputation of a border town: rough around the edges, multicultural, seedy, isolated, and buzzing with the comings and goings of tourism and trade. Most importantly, though, I was also aware that in Ruili they spoke a language closely related to Thai.

Dehong Dai or Tai Nüa (德宏傣語/傣哪語) is a Southwestern Tai-Kadai language spoken by some 500,000 people of the Dai nationality (傣族) in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture (德宏傣族景頗族自治州) of southern Yunnan province. Across the border in Myanmar, the language is considered a dialect of Shan and is spoken by roughly another 70,000 people. Elsewhere along China’s southern border, other related Tai languages are spoken by the Dai nationality and are also commonly referred to in Chinese under the umbrella term Dai language (傣語). These Tai languages, however, are distinct and have limited mutual intelligibility. In Myanmar, all varieties of the closely related Shan language combined have about 3 million speakers, and Tai Nüa is in fact also referred to as “Chinese Shan”. For such a sizable group, Tai Nüa and Shan are hardly known to the outside world. In and around Ruili, though, the Dai culture is omnipresent, and the language is thoroughly woven into daily life, alongside Mandarin, Yunnanese, and Burmese.

Stepping off the bus in Ruili, I felt like I had left China. The bus station was humming with activity. Two Bangladeshi children tugged at my shirt asking for money as a pair of pink-clad Buddhist nuns targeted me for the same reason. There were women with large belt-bags and wide-brimmed hats counting enormous wads of Burmese kyats at makeshift currency exchange stands along the street curb. A Pakistani merchant offered to sell me some jewelry. Another one offered opium. The sounds of Mandarin, Yunnanese, Dai, and Burmese mixed with the smells of a more Southeast Asian cuisine wafting over from a row of food vendors. Away from the chaos of the town centre, I realised that Ruili was actually a pretty sleepy place. As I walked around and got my bearings I quickly fell in love with the place.

getting acquainted with the language

Within the first few days I had a routine which involved starting my mornings off in a nice café that served excellent Burmese tea. They played good music and had comfortable tables and chairs, so it was an ideal spot to sit each morning and study some Burmese and Dai before venturing out to see sites. On one of these mornings after my tea fix, I met a man who went by Lao Feng (老冯). He was a friendly and talkative man who drove a tractor for work, collecting scrap or hauling things that needed to be hauled. He offered to take me around and show me a few temples. I gladly accepted his offer and soon I was hanging on the back of a tractor zipping down sunny country roads with palm trees and rice fields on either side.

We arrived at a small temple in a village on the outskirts of Ruili, and several monks came out to greet us. It is customary for many families to send one of their sons to go live and study at a temple, so most of the monks were quite young, ranging in age from about 8 to 18 or so. I was surprised that Lao Feng spoke to them in fluent Dai. The temple was raised on stilts, in the Dai style, with a wrap-around porch and open windows on all sides. Inside, the hall was empty except for a large altar with flowers and golden statues against the back wall. It was a much simpler aesthetic than in the Chinese Buddhist Temples I was accustomed to. The Dai practice a form of Theravada Buddhism mixed with some Dai folk beliefs. The monks showed me how to bai fo (拜佛 – prostrate to the Buddha) and pay respects to the head monk, and then we all sat down to have a chat.

Most of the conversation was in Dai, and again I was taken aback by how fluent Lao Feng seemed in the language. He had told me that he was Han Chinese, but I had never encountered a Han Chinese person who could speak any of China’s many ethnic minority languages. I tuned out, reflecting on how rare it would be in the U.S. to encounter a non-Native American with any knowledge of Native American languages, let alone the ability to converse in one. Suddenly I was being addressed in Chinese – the head monk had extended an invitation to me.

The proposition was that I would stay at the temple with free room and board for as long as I wanted in exchange for a daily English lesson with the head monk, whose name I now knew was Zawotika. I thought it over and told him I had one month before I had to report back to work in Chengdu. He seemed happy with a month, and he had one of the smaller buildings on the temple grounds opened up to house me for the ensuing weeks.

Zawotika and I spent a couple hours every morning having basic English conversation and breaking down some fundamentals of grammar and common speech patterns. We made due with Mandarin when we had trouble communicating, but I was surprised at how much English he had already picked up through his own study and from the occasional international tourist that came by. I admired his drive.

The rest of the day I was free to do whatever I wanted. I usually ended up in the company of the junior monks or on the back of Lao Feng’s tractor, as he would stop by every couple days to take me on some outing to a pagoda or lake or festival. It was an incredible level of hospitality. I learned that Lao Feng had been married to a Dai woman and that he often transported goods to Dai communities across the border in Myanmar. This is how he learned to speak Dai, as well as Burmese to a lesser degree, purely by immersion. He had only a 2nd grade education and thus had very limited literacy in Chinese, but he was clearly an astute language learner.

On the lazy, quiet days when I would stick around the temple, though, I spent a lot of time with a Dai monk from Myanmar named Osatta. I took the opportunity to try to learn some of the Dai language, and we ended up having really productive language exchange sessions. Osatta helped me to create a small phrase book for my own study. I transcribed the words and phrases he gave me and then asked him to write them out in Dai. Coming from Myanmar, he used the Shan script to write, which wasn’t uncommon on the Chinese side of the border either. When I felt like my head was full, we would switch and do the same thing in reverse, Osatta noting down English words and phrases and transcribing them in his own way. As the month went by we used less and less Mandarin and opted to communicate in an inefficient but very enthusiastic mishmash of broken Dai and broken English.

the language

Dehong Dai proved to be a fairly straight forward language with characteristics very typical of other Tai languages. It is an analytic SVO language with no grammatical gender, plural forms, or articles. Measure words are used in counting things, and noun phrases are head-initial. The most difficult thing for English speakers is probably the tones, of which Dehong Dai has six. Tones are lexical and any inaccuracy in tone will greatly impede communication.

Here are a couple examples of Dehong Dai:


Compare the usage of this greeting to the Chinese 你吃飯了嗎?(which translates verbatim) and the Thai กินข้าวหรือยัง, which contains the obvious cognate /kin k̄ĥāw/ – to eat. The Tai Nüa word for you /maə55/ is also a cognate with the Thai มึง /mɯŋ˧/, though the latter is considered vulgar, rude, or archaic, while the former is simply the standard second person singular pronoun.


The above sentence shows that Dehong Dai is head-initial, i.e. the head precedes its complements: “language Dai Dehong” for “Dehong Dai language”.

Dehong Dai is essentially the same language as Standard Shan, though with some lexical and phonological differences. Shan has more loanwords from Burmese and Pali, whereas Dehong Dai has many Chinese loanwords. Shan also has a few added sounds and graphs to accommodate these loanwords, whereas Dehong Dai has a slightly smaller stock of phonemes. Finally, there are some differences in the tone system. For example, Dehong Dai has six lexical tones to Shan’s five. This results in many words that are phonemically identical in the two languages except for their difference in tone.

the script

As for scripts, the situation in Dai is a little bit complicated. There are three scripts that can be used to write Dehong Dai. The first two are the new and old versions of the Tai Nüa script (also known as Tai Le script, /laːi55 tai55 35/, or 傣納文). The third is the Shan script (a modified version of the Burmese abugida), also known as /to35 lik54 tai55/, /laːi55 tai55 taə31/ or 傣繃文. All three writing systems are in current use.

The original Tai Nüa script did not indicate tones, but a 1956 spelling reform introduced diacritic tone marks. A further reform in 1988 replaced these diacritics with tone letters added to the end of every syllable (except for the unmarked 1st tone). As a result, older people who are literate in Dehong Dai will tend to still use tone diacritics and a slightly more flowery handwriting style, while younger people will use a more plain style with tone letters. All religious texts still use the old script, while all current materials from Chinese government approved publishers employ the newer Tai Nüa script.


Chart taken from “Cultural Circles and Epic Transmission: The Dai People in China” by Qu Yongxian.

In Myanmar, as Tai Nüa is considered a dialect of Shan, it is written only in the Shan script. This script is also widely used in Ruili, particularly among people who frequently cross the border. Below is a karaoke video of a Dehong Dai song with the lyrics written in both the modern Tai Nüa script and the Shan script.

further study

At the end of the month, I returned to to Chengdu with a strong fondness for Ruili, Dai culture, and Tai Nüa. I was also left with a lot of questions, particularly regarding the language. One of the biggest challenges with encountering China’s minority languages is that it can be difficult to find materials for learning them or even information about them. For those in the target region, who can read Chinese, there are usually books and dictionaries of varying quality that can be found, and of course there are native speakers to talk with. For those seeking to learn from further away, however, it can be more difficult. There might be some videos or print material online, but the scraps of information available are often not enough to properly study the language at hand.


In Ruili I was able to find only three books in or about Dehong Dai: a small Dai-Chinese dictionary, a self-study book for Chinese people to learn Dai, and a book of short stories by a Dai author, mostly in Chinese but with one story written in Dai. Since Ruili, though, resources have been scarce, and even worse, I have yet to meet another speaker of Dehong Dai. There is something satisfying in the challenge of having to piece together a language with few resources, though. After all these years, I’m still interested.

For others interested in this language, I’m compiling my notes from 14 years ago and useful bits of information from these books into a more user-friendly format to share. I will continue to add documents here in the hopes that other people find the information useful. If you are studying Tai Nüa or a related Tai language, please reach out or join the Tai Nüa/Dehong Dai Facebook Group I recently launched. For now, here is a link to an introductory lesson in Dehong Dai:

Dehong Dai – An Introductory Lesson

connecting Portuguese-based creoles

For more background information, please visit my previous posts about Papiamentu and Macanese Patuá.

In the past year I’ve had the pleasure of encountering and learning about two Portuguese-based creoles: Papiamentu and Macanese Patuá, spoken on different sides of the world. Having had no prior exposure to either of them, I never would have guessed how similar they would actually be. If the Portuguese language was going to be put into situations of linguistic crisis, in which people had to figure out some way to communicate with each other, in different parts of the world with completely different linguistic environments, it seems to me that the results would be quite unique. However the more I learned, the more I was surprised at just how many characteristics these two languages share. I was encouraged to speak about creole languages at this year’s Polyglot Gathering in Berlin and decided to take a comparative look at these two languages. Here are some my observations regarding Papiamentu and Patuá.

First of all, there are a number of superfluous Romance language characteristics that have been discarded in both languages, and in fact almost all creoles do away with unnecessarily detailed parent-language characteristics. These include grammatical gender, some aspects of grammatical number, differentiation between subject and object pronouns, and all verb inflections. Here is a brief review of personal pronouns in the two languages:

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Papiamentu and Patuá each use only one set of personal pronouns for subjects, direct objects, and indirect objects.

Verb tenses are indicated by tense-marking particles preceding the infinitive/verb root. Not only this, but these particles share etymological origins, and in modern Papiamentu and Patuá they still resemble each other quite closely – see below. In Patuá the use of  is limited to an explicitly present progressive meaning, and in Papiamentu ta is not used with a number of common verbs, but the parallel is nevertheless quite strong. A and , may have differing origins, coming from either , the helping verb used in the Portuguese past perfect tense, or possibly from  (already). Já in Portuguese is the clear origin of the Patuá marker. Lo and lôgo both derive from logo (later).

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Finally, the most obvious similarity is that Portuguese is the main original lexifier for both languages (Yes, I know that there are more Spanish-origin words in Papiamentu, but I believe that most of these are decreolizations of originally Portuguese words or much later borrowings), hence they share countless cognates. With an understanding of Portuguese or Spanish and these few basic grammar points, the two creoles quickly become quite transparent. Below are some sentences compared.

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For all their similarities, though, they are definitely distinct and unique languages. They have vastly differing secondary lexifiers, Papiamentu taking the rest of its vocabulary from Spanish, Dutch, Arawak, and West-African languages and Patuá taking significant vocabulary from Cantonese, Malay, and a variety of Indian languages. In Patuá it is particularly noticeable that words of Cantonese or Malay origin tend to be used most for foods and common household items, probably a result of much of the early female population being native speakers of these two languages. Likewise, many Papiamentu words having to do with reading and writing originate from Dutch, traditionally the language of education in the ABC islands. The sentences below would scarcely be intelligible to speakers of the other language:


Atâi tâ comê chau-cháu com santám. (The boy is eating stir-fry with coconut milk.)

Amochâi, vôs atirâ sapeca tê lap-sap! (Dear, you throw away your money!, lit. to the trash)


Dúnami un buki òf un korant. (Give me a book or a newspaper.)

Nan no tin pòtlot-nan. (They don’t have pencils.)

Pluralization is also handled differently in each language. Neither language requires plural markers in all instances of plural meaning, but where indicated Patuá employs a pluralization pattern taken from Malay, while Papiamentu uses a pattern found in some Volta-Niger languages.

The Patuá pluralization is simply a reduplication of the noun, commonly found in Malay and to a lesser extent in Chinese languages:

fil0 = son     filo filo = sons/children

In Papiamentu, the plural is indicated by adding a plural suffix -nan (also a the third person plural pronoun). This pattern is also found in other Caribbean creoles, such has Haitian Creole.

e buki = the book     e buki-nan = the books

Even with extensive lexical differences and some differences in common grammatical patterns, we can see that there is still a considerable degree of mutual intelligibility.

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Patuá Excerpt taken from PCB Magazine, Edição 11, Recordâ sã vivê. pcbmagazine.blogspot/2013/09/recorda-sa-vive.html

So how is it that both of these languages diverged from standard Portuguese in so many similar ways? The answer to this lies in the instrumental role the Portuguese played in the  establishment of the Atlantic slave trade in the 15th and 16th centuries. They occupied the islands of Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Príncipe and used them as trading and “processing” posts for slaves taken from nearby continental Africa. Thus the language had a presence on the islands early on. Those working in the slave trade, however, were not always speakers of standard Portuguese themselves. On the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe there had arisen a ruling class of Afro-Portuguese people who spoke Portuguese-based creole languages. These very similar creoles, as well as other Portuguese-based pidgins were used by those both administrating the trading ports and traders traveling back and forth along the west coast of Africa and as far as the Caribbean and Asia.

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By Descobrimentos_e_explorações_portuguesesV2.png: *Descobrimentos_e_explorações_portugueses.png: *Portuguese_discoveries_and_explorations.png: *Portuguese_Empire_map.jpg: Toklederivative work: Uxbona (talk) – Descobrimentos_e_explorações_portuguesesV2.png, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Naturally, these creole languages were also used to communicate with slaves. When capturing people in Africa and bringing them to these trading posts, the slave traders were careful to separate linguistic and cultural communities, so as to impede communication (and subsequent revolt) among the captives. Having been stripped of their native languages, slaves in turn had to use Portuguese-based pidgins and creoles to communicate with each other. As the slave trade and the Portuguese trading empire in general grew and spread throughout the world, so did these creole languages. Thus, several interrelated varieties of Portuguese-based creoles were taken all over the Caribbean, the coasts of Africa, India, and East Asia.

In the Caribbean, Papiamentu maintained more influences from West African languages, particularly in the area of phonology but also at the syntactic and lexical levels. Extensive Spanish and Dutch vocabulary and some Arawak vocabulary was incorporated, but even as it developed, Papiamentu retained its Portuguese-based core. In Asia, Portuguese-based creoles sprung up in many areas, including Bombay, South India, Sri Lanka, Kolkata, Malacca, and Macau. In Macau, the local Cantonese language became a source for a large amount of vocabulary, as were Malay and several Indian languages, all languages that had left their mark on Portuguese trade creoles along the route to Macau. Despite these influences, though, Portuguese remained the primary component of the Patuá language.

This interconnectedness might lend itself to the creole origin theory of monogenesis, which states that all creoles are derived from 17th century West African pidgin Portuguese, which in turn stemmed from Mediterranean Lingua Franca. By this theory, languges like Haitian Creole and Jamaican Patois would have been relexified with French and English vocabulary, respectively, while retaining the grammar and syntactic structure of creolized varieties of Portuguese from Africa.

This theory of course can have no bearing on the origins of creole languages that had no contact with the Atlantic slave traders, such as Hawaiian Pidgin English, but perhaps the 17th century Portuguese creoles of West Africa had farther reaching influences on modern day Caribbean creoles than meets the eye. At any rate, for those creoles whose lexicons remained mainly Portuguese the relationship is clear, and the 16th century creoles of São Tomé & Príncipe seem to be the missing link.

There are those, however, that still press for a unifying theory for all creoles, regardless of origin. Bickerton’s language bioprogram theory posits that given the typical social circumstances that lead to a creole language, the generation of children who convert that language from a pidgin to a creole are relying on innate grammar in their brain structure. According to this theory, our brains are actually hard-wired to create, understand, and use grammar. Thus, unrelated creole languages such as Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Nubi (East Africa), and Hezhou (Western China) would have similar structures and characteristics because of the predisposition of the human mind to organise language in certain ways.

It is true, in most cases, that these other creoles with no historical connection to the Atlantic slave trade, do share many characteristics with Atlantic-based creoles, i.e. lack of grammatical gender, minimal to no verb inflections, tense-marking particles, etc. However, this is not enough evidence to prove a unique cognitive or linguistic relationship between them. The same characteristics show up, for instance, in all varieties of Chinese, a group of languages that have developed slowly over time, completely unlike creoles.

It seems that the label “creole” may not actually have much to do with linguistic structure or categorization, but rather describes a socio-linguistic situation repeated again and again throughout history. Creoles have suffered (and continue to suffer) the stigma of being linguistically “inferior” to their parent languages. They are often referred to as “improper” or “incorrect” versions of another, usually European, prestige language. If this is the case, does the term “creole” actually do a disservice to the languages?

“Creole” may perhaps be more meaningfully used in terms of a people’s culture and socio-linguistic history. It describes a set of circumstances and the ability of a community to innovate for the sake of communication. Though there are many linguistic featured shared by creoles, it seems that these features are not necessarily unique in the scope of human language. Furthermore, history has shown us the dangers of haphazard categorization given the stigma that creoles have collectively faced. Creoles are often dismissed as linguistically “simple”, all the while sharing many traits with many other unrelated languages such as Mandarin Chinese, a very high-prestige world language.

To this day it remains unclear what, if any, purely linguistic significance the term creole carries. Papiamentu and Patuá do share linguistic similarities, but this is to be expected considering their parallel histories and common origins. As for how they relate to other creoles in the world, it seems that shared historical circumstances may be the most striking similarity. The emergence of creoles all over the world shows us that humans have an instinct for verbal communication, and this is perhaps all we can know for now.


In addition to the resources used on previous creole posts, the following set provided much valuable information for this article:

Holm, John. Pidgins and Creoles, Volume I: Theory and Structure. (1988)

Holm, John. Pidgins and Creoles, Volume II: Reference Survey. (1988)

language learning beyond the gender binary

Avid language learners and polyglots often end up in situations where we talk about the details of our lives for the sake of language practice.  Whether it is practicing in a conversation class or talking with a language exchange partner on Skype, at some stage in your language learning you’ll have to talk about your actual life, and at this stage you may start to notice that your learning materials have not enabled you to describe your own personal reality. Older materials will lack vocabulary about the technology that we use daily or you may not have the words to talk about your unique hobbies and interests. At any rate, the world of pedagogic dialogues and reading passages does not come close to reflecting the world in which we actually live.

“…modismos…de frequente uso…que mayor importancia tienen” – Seriously!?

In my own studies, I’ve found this to be particularly true as relates to my own queer identity. This really hit home when I encountered a dialogue in a Swedish language textbook in which a man refers to his boyfriend. I realised that it was the first time I had ever encountered any LGBTQIA+ representation at all in language learning materials – and I have used hundreds of language books and courses. (Actually there was another instance, when I found maricón listed in a Quechua phrasebook under “useful expresions”, but that’s not exactly what I was going for.) It struck me just how invisible I felt in the realm of language learning materials, a realm that has always served as my most treasured personal refuge.

Not long after, another issue arose while I was having a Skype exchange. I can’t recall which language I was practicing, but I remember I was at a loss when I began to talk about a friend who does not identify as male or female. In English I would normally use the singular they (my friend’s preferred pronoun), but the language at hand was grammatically gendered, and I found myself being cornered into making choices about another person’s identity, which made me very uncomfortable. It became clear that having the appropriate language in English was not enough and that I would need to dig a little bit to find information on gender inclusivity in the languages I study as well.


The topic of gender neutral pronouns has received some attention in the U.S. media lately, but it is far from being widely acknowledged or understood. It is even farther from being included in reference materials. Singular “they” was declared 2015’s word of the year by the American Dialect Society, reflecting a growing need for and acceptance of gender neutral language and the inadequacy of a binary-based concept of gender. For some, singular “they” is a practical way to begin to remove gender biases and patriarchy from language. For others it is their preferred pronoun, reflecting the fact that they identify neither as male nor female. It is important to know, however, that “they” is only one of many non-binary gender pronouns used in English. The Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog gives a good rundown of many possible gender neutral pronouns.


2015 was also a big year for the pronoun hen in Sweden. This pronoun was first proposed as a gender neutral alternative to hon (she) and han (he) in the 60’s. It gained popularity in the 90’s and early 2000’s, and in 2015 the Swedish Academy added hen to the 14th edition of their dictionary, Svenska Akademiens Ordlista. I’m not sure how widely it is used, but I am told that it is very widely understood. Even those who do not use it are familiar with it, and it is not a source of confusion, which is sometimes the case for those unfamiliar with singular “they” usage in English.


Luckily for the queer polyglot, there are plenty of languages that have no grammatical gender, and Finnish is one of them. Finnish uses hän (the source of inspiration for Swedish’s hen) in the 3rd person singular and se in the spoken language. Neither bears any information regarding gender. Adjectives will not reflect gender either.


Bengali is similar in this respect. There are no pronouns that indicate gender. In general, there is no grammatical gender either, with the exception of some vestigial words with masculine and feminine versions leftover from Sanskrit. In Bengali, the general 3rd person singular pronoun is সে /še:/. There are also উনি /’uni/ and ইনি /’ini/, which are used as honorific pronouns for any gender.


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Chinese third person singular pronouns for men, women, gods/spirits, animals, and objects. All are transcribed in pinyin as tā.

In Chinese, there is no way to distinguish “he” from “she” as spoken, though there are different characters that are sometimes used. 他 /tā/ is used for both “he” and “she”, though 她 /tā/ is often preferred for “she”, the 女 radical meaning “female”. Interestingly, there is also 牠 /tā/, a pronoun for animals containing the 牛 radical, meaning “cow”. Finally, I recently learned of the less common 祂 /tā/, a respectful pronoun traditionally used for deities that contains the radical 礻, meaning altar or spirit. Personally, I would love to see Chinese-speaking queers adopt this pronoun in written Chinese, as a way to transcend the binary entirely in favour of the pronoun of immortals and nymphs ().

These particular languages don’t present much of a challenge, and perhaps the majority of the world’s languages do not have gender distinctions built into them. But what do we do with languages that are heavily gendered at a grammatical and lexical level? Which verb and adjective forms do you use to talk about a person for whom none of the options are appropriate?

Photo credit: M.Haspelmath, M.S. Dryer, D. Gil, B. Comrie (2005): WALSin, The World Atlas of Language Structures.

Romance languages are probably some of the more commonly studied gendered languages. They will typically reflect gender in their pronouns, adjective endings, and noun endings. That makes for a large portion of the language that has to be navigated with care and creativity in order to remove or neutralize gender signifiers.


In Spanish there are a few very common ways to do this in writing. Typically, masculine words are indicated by an -o ending and feminine words by an -a (there are exceptions), so one will often see an –@ used instead to represent both endings with one symbol. Hence, Hola tod@s would be used to address a group without resorting to the masculine todos as the default pronoun for mixed company, as is done in many languages. One clear problem with this is that it cannot be pronounced. A more important problem is that it still functions within a gender binary and excludes anyone who identifies elsewhere along the gender spectrum. This is often solved with the use of an –x instead of an -o or -a, as in queridxs amigxs, “dear friends”. This, however, brings us back to the problem of pronunciation. Furthermore, neither of the above solutions have any bearing on pronouns.

Elle (plural elles) has been proposed by blogger Sophia Gubb as a gender neutral third person pronoun for Spanish and is probably the most widely used. Along with this pronoun ending come the noun and adjective endings -e (singular) and -es (plural) and the articles le, les, une, and unes. Thus we have les chiques instead of l@s chic@s or lxs chicxs. It is easy to pronounce, very systematic, and easy to use given the willingness to do so. You can watch a good video about this below:

Unfortunately, usage of this type of language is still very limited, and many who are not open to the idea will simply tell you that it is incorrect. There is no recognition of elle or the grammatical forms that accompany it by the Real Academia Española, but people are pushing for this. I even found a petition that you can sign to get RAE to officially recognize elle or some other gender neutral pronoun.


If Spanish presents challenges to de-gendering language, then Hebrew presents near impossibilities. Not only are third person pronouns gendered (masculine and feminine), but so are second person pronouns, all nouns, adjectives, and conjugated verbs. The language is teeming with gender assignment. One thing that is sometimes done, especially in the world of academia, is to always use feminine forms for the default, a choice in solidarity with feminism. However if we are talking about a non-binary individual, not the default concept of a person, what can we do? How will that person speak? Keep in mind that all of their first person verbs will have to be gendered as well. What choices can be made?

First of all, many people will opt to use impersonal grammatical constructions in the place of first person verb forms. One could say נראה לי, “it seems to me”, not reflecting any gender, rather than אני חושב, “I think (masc.)” or אני חושבת, “I think (fem.)”. This kind of approach, which I found mentioned here, is a great way to circumnavigate gender markings, but it is limited. You won’t always have a natural sounding impersonal construction at your fingertips for every given situation. There are not a lot of other options other than to alternate between both masculine and feminine verb forms, even within the same sentence. One might use a first person masculine verb form in the first clause of a sentence and then a first person feminine form in the second clause. Even if this tactic is still based in the gender binary, it definitely throws a wrench into the conventions of it, ultimately queering the language.

(UPDATE: Since publishing this article, I have learned about the Nonbinary Hebrew Project has been born, or at least has come to my attention. The paper on which the project is based proposes a full set of gender neutral grammatical endings for Hebrew, outlined here.)


Thinking about all these obstacles created by natural languages, I became curious about the concept of gender in Esperanto, a constructed language. Proposed as a utopian world language, it would stand to reason that it should be flexible enough to adapt to changing visions of utopia. Esperanto is actually a fairly gendered language, having separate words for he (li) and she (ŝi), as well as words for females that are based off of a male root word plus the feminine suffix -ino. For example, the word knabo means “boy”, based off the archaic German Knabe, and knabino, with the added suffix, means “girl”. In this case we can use the word infano to simply mean “child”, but what about words like instruisto and instruistino (male and female teacher, respectively)? Is the default form always male? Some people will say that you don’t have to use instruistino and that instruisto can be used for anyone regardless of gender. Others go further and propose that instruisto be used as a gender neutral form and that suffixes be used to indicate a specifically male or female teacher. In this case the male suffix is -iĉo, yielding instruistiĉo, while a female teacher remains an instruistino.

Returning back to the pronouns li (he) and ŝi (she), some people consider li to be gender neutral, though this does not seem to be widely accepted.  A third pronoun, ĝi, is gender neutral, however this means “it”, and is not generally used to refer to people. In the absence of a gender neutral animate pronoun, many people use ri or ŝli. The latter comes from the internet use of ŝ/li as a written contraction similar to “s/he”, and therefore it is still binary based, whereas ri is truly neutral. This usage, called “Riism”, is not official, and many Esperanto purists will consider it incorrect, while other Esperantist communities have embraced it.

Genderqueer Pride Flag

There is of course much more to say on this subject and many more languages to explore. Some cultures will no doubt have their own concepts of gender and perhaps corresponding preferences about the language used to describe different kinds of people. As language learners our job is to educate ourselves about these preferences. Ultimately, the important thing in any language, is to be respectful and intentional with the words you use. However, gender-inclusive language resources are not always readily available. Being connected to a diverse group of polyglots and language enthusiasts is definitely a big help when it comes to seeking out this kind of information.

Looking back over the history of queer liberation, self-determination has been the driving force behind positive change. As queers with an interest in language, we need the same sense of self-determination to create and use the kind of language that we feel accurately and respectfully describes us. As queer language learners and polyglots, we rely on each other to teach and share information about the words we need in both our native and acquired languages. In that spirit, I’d like to call attention to some resources online that I hope enable you to feel confident and represented in your language learning pursuits.


The most comprehensive sources I’ve found for multiple languages are the pronoun lists at and There is also a good Wikipedia page on Gender neutrality in genderless languages.

For German there is a good pronoun page on the Nichtbinär-Wiki.

For Spanish, in addition to Sophia Gubb’s Blog, there is also information on pronouns at nobinario and Archivo Mogai.

For French there is a thorough slide presentation available on non-binary language.

The Nonbinary Hebrew Project is a new and unprecedented resource for Hebrew.

Please share your own resources, and I will continue to add them here.