the importance of learning Arabic

the buzz

Lately on social media there has been a lot of talk about learning Arabic.  The fact that World Arabic Language Day just passed certainly contributes to that, but it has been a frequent topic of discussion for a while now.  “Top ten”-style lists abound, extolling the reasons why Arabic is the language you should be learning.  It has close to 300 million native speakers, it is an official language in 25 different countries, it opens up many lucrative job opportunities, etc.  These are the typical reasons we’re given as motivation to learn a language.  The media likes to identify the “next big language” or the “language of the future” every now and then, and typically this has more to do with economics and business than anything else.  You won’t find articles encouraging the study of Telugu or Javanese (though they each have close to 100 million native speakers) because they just don’t carry financial incentives.  We’ve seen it with Spanish and Chinese as well – different languages, same rhetoric.  Speakers of large languages are seen as untapped markets, or worse, sources of cheap labour, that become more accessible when you learn to speak their language.  Notions of learning about a new culture, connecting with people, and expanding your worldview are all too often glossed over.  What matters at the end of the day is the money.

Though this type of thinking does a great injustice to the value of languages in general, I feel that it falls extremely short of conveying the importance of learning Arabic, particularly in our world today.

“Arabic speaking world” by Keteracel at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

the reasons

In the U.S., particularly in the past month since the Paris attacks, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric and acts are on the rise.  In November, two men were temporarily stopped from boarding a flight from Chicago to Philadelphia because they were speaking Arabic, and it made another passenger “uncomfortable”.  A self-defense class for Muslim women is started in New York after increasing reports of harassment targeting women wearing hijabs.  Irving Texas has seen the arrest of 9th grader Ahmed Mohamed for making a homemade clock that was assumed to be a bomb, as well as an armed protest outside a local mosque, staged by people who are against the purported “Islamization of America”.

An article from a right wing news website states that Arabic is the fastest growing language in the U.S., citing a 29% increase between 2010 and 2014.  The article warns of the high percentages of people in the U.S. that speak a language other than English at home.  These numbers are seen as a threat to the English language itself, which is referred to in the article as the “glue that holds our country together”.  This rhetoric feeds the myth of the “Islamization of America”, when in reality this 29% increase only brings the number of Arabic speakers in the U.S. up to about 860,000, or roughly .003% of the population.  Not exactly a large enough sector to warrant fear on a national level.  Nevertheless, anti-Muslim sentiment in the country grows.  A school district was shut down due to threats it received after a homework assignment featured Arabic calligraphy.  People are scared of what this language supposedly represents, and despite the fact that many Arabic speakers are not Muslim and many Muslims do not speak Arabic,  the Arabic language is perceived as a part of that so-called “threat” of Islam.

With hate speech and fear-based Trumpisms flying around at an alarming rate, it seems to me that the biggest reason to learn Arabic nowadays, is the need to support communities of Arabic speakers.  Polyglot and language learner communities are uniquely equipped to help turn the tide of intolerance through their study and use of different languages (emphasis on the “use”).  People tend to fear the unknown, but our skills enable us to help shed light on the Arabic language, and by proxy the people that speak it.  One of the “reasons to learn Arabic” lists I came across puts it very clearly:

“By studying Arabic and learning about the culture, you will gain a deeper and more nuanced perspective of the Arabic-speaking world than the typical themes found in U.S. mass media. As you share a more balanced perspective with your family, friends, and peers, you will encourage a greater understanding of Arab culture in U.S. society and more trusting attitudes towards Arab Americans and Arabs living in the U.S.”  (American Councils for International Education, Seven reasons why now is the time to learn Arabic )

In Israel this sentiment has recently been put towards a law mandating the study of Arabic in Jewish schools, starting in the first grade.  The idea is that language serves as a vehicle towards cultural understanding and the humanization of the “other”.

It’s also important to keep in mind that when practicing your new language skills with Arabic speakers, you’re giving direct support to the language community.  You’re allowing the other person to feel pride in their language and identity.  You begin to chip away at the dynamic that keeps those who are marginalized from freely and safely displaying their culture, speaking their language, or just being themselves.

the language

Needless to say, I have already jumped on the bandwagon and begun to learn Arabic as well.  It’s one of the “big languages”, so it was only a matter of time before I got around to studying it, but now it’s also a matter of urgency and importance.

The first decision every student of Arabic will encounter is whether to study Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the literary language based on the language of the Qur’an, or one of the many regional dialects of Arabic.  Benny Lewis has a good article hashing out this question on Fluent in 3 Months, so I won’t delve into the pros and cons here.  In the end I’ve decided to lean heavily towards dialects and just periodically check in with MSA as I progress.  I’m mainly using audio materials, as the regional dialects are not generally written, and am focusing on Levantine Arabic (because of the political situations in the region) and Egyptian Arabic (because of the vast amount of media available in this dialect).  At this early stage, there isn’t much confusion between the two dialects, but I imagine there might be as I progress, at which point I’ll just pick one dialect to focus on.

As for Modern Standard Arabic, I decided I would get some very simple workbooks to start to get the basics of the written language.  I have used modified versions of the Arabic alphabet in studying Urdu and Uyghur, but it’s my first time seeing how the writing system functions in the original language (but that’s a whole other article unto itself).  So with Syrian Arabic dialogues playing in my headphones, I walked over to a section of Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, where there are a couple of Arabic language bookstores.

Maktaba Dar-Us-Salam has a great selection of beginner level books for MSA – I picked up a reader and a few workbooks.  Though I was eager to try speaking Arabic in the store, I actually just ended up practicing Urdu.  I think this brings up an important point though.  Arabic speakers are not the only ones feeling the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S.  Learning Bengali or Farsi or Urdu can make just as much of a statement.  The key question is what signal do your linguistic pursuits send out to the world around you?

As I left the bookstore I was stopped by a reporter who asked me if I was buying books on Islam and if I was Muslim.  She said she was interviewing people to find out about any anti-Muslim behaviour experienced in the wake of the Paris attacks.  It was a nice reminder of my original motivation for coming to this store.  It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of glossy new books and beautiful scripts, but it’s essential to remember that the extremely rewarding study of languages can have far-reaching positive effects with the right intention and practice.  If you are a student of Arabic, or if you decide to become one, I hope that you will keep this in mind.

preserving Jewish languages in Brooklyn

In my last post I wrote about the presence of Yiddish in Brooklyn, but Yiddish is by no means the only Jewish language spoken here.  So while we’re on the topic I’d like to talk a little bit about the phenomenon of Jewish languages in general, as well as a few that have found a home in this city.

Let’s start with a little history first.  Hebrew ceased to be the vernacular of the Jewish people around 200 BCE, first giving way to Aramaic and later to various other languages as Jewish communities spread throughout the world in diaspora.  Here in New York, Yiddish is indeed the most well-known example of these diasporic languages.  Jews in Germany around the 9th century spoke varieties of Middle High German but were literate in Hebrew and Aramaic, a source of many loanwords.  As time progressed, many of these communities migrated to Eastern Europe.  Over the centuries the variety of German that they continued to speak became heavily influenced by slavic languages, resulting in what we know today as modern Yiddish.  But what about communities in other parts of the world?  What did the Jews end up speaking in the Middle East, Spain, North Africa or even India?


The Jews from Spain spoke Judeo-Spanish (also know as Judezmo or Ladino).  In North Africa and the Middle East, many spoke varieties of Judeo-Arabic and Jewish languages related to Persian.  In India, one could find Judeo-Marathi and Judeo-Malayalam.  Do you see the pattern here?  Time and time again Jewish communities have adopted a language and modified it in certain ways while maintaining a distinct cultural identity, giving rise to a uniquely Jewish form of the original language.  What is remarkable is how similar this process has been for so many Jewish languages throughout the world.

There are two characteristics that all Jewish languages share.  First, all Jewish languages started out as already existing, non-Jewish languages, i.e. none of them developed from Hebrew or Aramaic.  Second, these adopted languages took on Jewish characteristics in the form of loanwords and expressions from Hebrew and Aramaic.  These borrowed vocabulary items tend to refer to concepts or items of religious importance, though Hebrew words or biblical expressions are often used in colloquial speech as well.  (It should be noted that this phenomenon varies in degree, depending on the language.)

There is also a third characteristic shared by most, though not all, Jewish languages:  the Hebrew alphabet.  Languages, such as Yiddish, Ladino, varieties of Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Berber, Bukhari, and others were or are written in the Hebrew script, often modified to accommodate sounds not found in Hebrew.  Judeo-Malayalam and Judeo-Marathi are not written in the Hebrew script, though many community members are able to read Hebrew for religious purposes.

Finally, another set of characteristics common to many Jewish languages, has to do with the mobile nature of diasporic life.  Many languages that were adopted and reshaped by Jewish communities around the world were then taken on further migrations to new regions of the world.  After the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Judeo-Spanish was taken to Morocco, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans.  Bukhari, a form of Judeo-Persian, was taken to areas of modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.  This kind of movement often results in many archaisms being preserved in the Jewish language as it travels.  The language crystalizes to a degree, maintaining vocabulary or grammar that eventually drops out of the original language.  It also results in a tertiary language or set of languages that serve as a source for new borrowings, e.g. Judeo-Spanish that flourished in Turkey took on many Turkish loanwords.  In all cases, the end product is multi-layered language, often exhibiting di- or triglossia, whereby each register may have a different language source that it draws from most.  For instance, Ladino, the religious register of Judeo-Spanish is basically a word for word translation of Hebrew into Spanish-origin vocabulary, whereas secular writing is more throughly Spanish-based.  Finally, in the colloquial register of everday speech, one finds an abundance of loan words from Turkish, Greek or other local languages, depending on where the community is located.  Jewish languages have many ingredients.

Now that someIMG_1197 of these langauges have arrived in the U.S., they are transforming further and acquiring yet another layer due to borrowings from English.  And this brings us to the event that inspired me to write this post in the first place.  A couple of weeks ago the Endangered Language Alliance organised a Jewish languages walking tour in Brooklyn.  The idea of the tour was to give some insight into the lesser-known Jewish languages in our city, and it featured members of communities that speak Syrian Judeo-Arabic and Juhuri.  Needless to say, I was extremely excited.

A young member of the Juhuri speaking community, Roza Shamailova, and her Juhuri teacher, Simon Mardakhayev, spoke to us first.  Juhuri, sometimes referred to as Judeo-Tat, is a language spoken in Azerbaijan and Dagestan and now in Israel and the United States.  It is most closely related to modern Persian, but still has characteristics of medieval Persian, borrowings from Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Azeri, and Russian.  It even exhibits the phonological phenomenon of vowel harmony, common to Turkic languages such as Azeri.  Juhuri also has sounds not found in Persian to accommodate the traditional Mizrahi pronunciation of Het (ח) and Ayin (ע).  Written Juhuri has undergone many changes, first having been written in the Hebrew alphabet, then a modified Roman alphabet in the 20’s, and finally the Cyrillic alphabet under the Soviet Union.  You can find in Juhuri all the multi-layered characteristics of a typical Jewish language.

Juhuri has not been widely passed on to the younger generations in recent years and has less than 100,000 speakers worldwide.  In Azerbaijan and Dagestan pressure to speak Russian and Azeri, as well as mass emigration, has reduced the usage of the language.  In Israel and the U.S., pressure to speak Hebrew and English has done the same.  In response to this, Roza and other young members of the Juhuri community in Brooklyn have organised classes to learn the language of their parents and grandparents.  She said she has attained an intermediate level in the language and is motivated to continue learning, but it is certainly an uphill battle.

Before moving on with the tour, we were given a short Lezginka performance, a style of dance from the Caucasus popular with Juhuri speakers.  The children who performed the dance were obviously proud and enthusiastic about their heritage, and I could imagine them taking an interest in learning Juhuri as they get older.  Let’s hope the community’s efforts in teaching the language yield more resources and social relevance for Juhuri in years to come and that teachers like Simon (featured in the video above) continue to share their knowledge.

The ELA recording a conversation in Juhuri.

Our next stop on the tour was Bnei Yehouda, a small house synagogue within the Syrian Jewish community, led by Cantor Yohai Cohen.  Cantor Cohen grew up in Israel with family from Syria and Tunisia, each speaking their own version of Judeo-Arabic.  He said that the major difference that he notes between Judeo-Arabic languages and other varieties of Arabic is the use of Hebrew loanwords and expressions.  If a person speaking Judeo-Syrian Arabic, for example, is careful to not use Hebrew-based words, their language could be mistaken for non-Jewish Syrian Arabic.  He also commented that on Djerba island in Tunisia, where part of his family is from, the difference between Judeo-Arabic and non-Jewish Arabic often has more to do with how things are said and the choice of words, rather than the origins of the words themselves.  This is where the debate between dialect and language comes in, as often happens with Jewish languages due to the nature of their development.  Some will consider varieties of Judeo-Arabic just to be dialects of Arabic, not languages.  Judeo-Arabic is distinct, though, in its use of the Hebrew alphabet, which has been employed in Judeo-Arabic literature throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Cantor Yohai Cohen playing the Oud.

Cantor Cohen is also a master of the maqam musical tradition, a system of melodic scales, found in traditional Arab music.  In Jewish communities this melodic system has been used for centuries to sing religious songs in both Hebrew and Arabic.  This usage of maqams is as much a blending of different elements as Judeo-Arabic itself.  Cantor Cohen takes great pride in the music and language, and the community is lucky to have him keeping both alive.

The tour continued on to Mansoura Bakery, run by a Moroccan French-speaker, whose family originally spoke Haketía, a variety of Judeo-Spanish.  After loading up on sweets the tour continued to the final destination, Mizrahi Bookstore, housing a large collection of Sephardic/Mizrahi-focused books.  I had other commitments and wasn’t able to make it to the bookstore (this time), but the tour left me with plenty to think about.  How strong must a group’s cultural identity be to develop and maintain (across time and space) a language that is all their own?  Certainly cultural isolation and the “otherness” imposed by outsiders play a role in strengthening a group’s hold on their language and identity as well, but I think the speakers’ sense of self is key.

It is amazing that Juhuri speakers’ ancestors spoke Hebrew, then Aramaic, then Persian, and were exposed to Arabic and Azeri and Russian, and today’s speakers still carry all of those layers on their tongues.  It should only make sense that the language would continue to morph and add more layers as it moves to different parts of the world.  But a very strong cultural identity and real conviction is going to be necessary to give Juhuri (and most of these other languages) any place in contemporary New York City, let alone in the future.  Minority languages are not spoken out of need or convenience in today’s world, but rather because of the sense of belonging and history that they provide.  I think that as more people realise this, we’ll come closer to preserving and cultivating the linguistic richness that still exists around us today.




Yiddish: unofficial minority language of Brooklyn and official minority language of…Sweden?

Every now and then one receives a request for a favour that doesn’t seem like a favour at all because it is simply a pleasure to do.  A few weeks ago I received just such a request.  My friend from Sweden asked me to go to Boro Park (also spelled Borough Park), a largely Hasidic neighbourhood in Brooklyn, to buy some books in Yiddish for a library where he works in Stockholm.  He said they didn’t need to be anything specific, but they should be visually interesting enough to appeal to someone who might not actually understand Yiddish.  Not a bad assignment – go buy pretty books.  I accepted the challenge.

Now, you might be wondering what a library in Sweden would want with books in Yiddish, especially while acknowledging that the readership for said books will be limited.  This all stems from a decision made in 1999 whereby the Minority  Language Committee of Sweden designated five official minority languages of Sweden.  These are Finnish, Sami, Romani, Meänkieli, and Yiddish.  Increased awareness of Sweden’s minority language communities and pressure to recognise and support them resulted in a law being implemented on January 1, 2010 to establish legal recognition and protection of the official minority languages.  (Incidentally, Swedish was not even recognised an official language until 2009).

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“The law results from the fact that Swedish minority policies did not have the impact that was hoped for and that Sweden was criticised for not having met its international legal obligations.  Above all, the needs of minorities had not been considered outside of the administrative departments.  Therefore there is now a unified law that applies throughout the country with strengthened protection in certain areas.  Ensuring that minority rights are enforced is one part of Sweden’s work for human rights.”

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“Yiddish, Romani Chib, Finnish, Meänkieli, and Sami are national minority languages.  The latter three have extra protection under the new law and can be used in correspondence with the authorities, and minorities have the right to elderly care and childcare in their own language.”

So what exactly were the criteria for deciding which languages should be included as official minority languages?  Basically, a language would be granted official status if it had a historical presence in Sweden for a significant amount of time and if it was spoken by a significant amount of people.  Yiddish, having been brought to Sweden by Jews starting in the 1700’s, and having had its population of speakers more recently replenished by refugees in the years after WWII, met the qualifications.

One final piece of the minority language legislation is that the speakers of these languages should reap cultural benefit from the newly acquired status.  This idea of cultural benefit focuses in large part on the younger generations.

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“The law is especially concerned with the development of children’s cultural identity and the promotion of minority language use among children.”

What all of this legal protection means, in a country like Sweden, is that there is a fair amount of funding available for the promotion of minority languages.  On Sveriges Radio’s website you can find children’s stories in Yiddish, and Sveriges Utbildningsradio even has some children’s tv programs dubbed in Yiddish (as well as all the other minority languages).  Yiddish books are published in Sweden every year, and there are language learning resources available for free online.  And finally, getting back to my mission, librarian Yiddish-enthusiasts get to stock the shelves of their local libraries with Yiddish titles.

So last Monday I set out on the D train for Boro Park in search of fresh Yiddish materials to be sent to join the minority language love-fest over in Sweden.  The mere 30 minutes it took me to get to my destination transported me to another world.   Walking out of the station at 62nd Street is a bit like stepping back in time.  The vast majority of the people are Hasidic, ultra-orthodox Jews, the women dressed in modest clothes right out of the 1940’s and the men dressed in hats, suits, and long coats that harken back a century or so further.  The shops are mostly mom and pop establishments, some still with old hand-painted signs, and the language on the street is Yiddish.

New York has long been a haven for the Yiddish language.  Less than 100 years ago you could find a thriving Yiddish-language theater scene, hear Yiddish dramas on the radio, read local newspapers in Yiddish, and more or less live your daily life in the language.  The need to flee persecution in Eastern Europe in the 19th century and later due to WWII meant that there was a constant influx of Yiddish speakers into the greater New York area, and Brooklyn was a place where many of them settled.  Over time, however, secular and less religiously conservative Jews assimilated to mainstream, English-speaking life, and the language ceased to be passed on to younger generations.  The average New Yorker (Jewish or not) still peppers their English with a large number of Yiddish loanwords and expressions, but the language in its true form has mostlly died out…with one large exception.

In the aftermath of WWII many Hasidic religious leaders saw assimilation as the demise of the Jewish people; some even taught that the holocaust was a divine punishment for having assimilated too much into mainstream society.  As these leaders began to rebuild their communities in Brooklyn, they emphasized the need to remain separate, religious, and also Yiddish-speaking.  Today, these communities have mostly stuck to their linguistic guns, and in neighbourhoods like Boro Park and South Williamsburg, as well as towns upstate like Kiryas Joel and New Square, Yiddish is the main language of daily life, from seniors to toddlers.

In general my efforts to speak Yiddish in these neighbourhoods have been  pretty well received, and this time was no exception.  The first place I stopped was a small bookstore that I like because the owners are always friendly and willing to chat.  I explained what I needed, and the man behind the counter directed me to a rack of children’s books with colourful pictures, graphic novels, and comics.  At first he didn’t bat an eyelash at my Yiddish, but after a few minutes he asked me why I had learned it.  I replied, “?פאר וואס נישט” (Why not?)  He shrugged his shoulders and made a contemplative face as if to say, “Good point – why not?”.  After a little more shmoozing, I bought a graphic novel (in Yiddish) about Mashhadi Jews in Iran and continued on my way.

As I walked down 13th Avenue, there was no shortage of opportunities to eavesdrop on Yiddish conversations, read the headlines of the many Yiddish newspapers at the newsstands, and succumb to the temptation of bakeries selling baked goods, all with Yiddish names.  My absolute favourite Yiddish sitings, though, were DIY advertisements, hand-written and taped to walls or lampposts.  Here’s a good one:

Do you struggle with your kid’s peyos?  You don’t like the “jelled” (sic) look?  We have an awesome styling gel.  Hair stays natural looking, holds firm and long, hair won’t get sticky, a little bit gets the job done.  And above all, it’s natural!!!  Call now: (number blurred)

There is also a fair amount of English and Hebrew spoken in neighbourhood, but little details like this ad give the feeling that Yiddish is the language that’s nearest and dearest to the community.

My last stop in Boro Park was Eichler’s, a large Judaica store with a particularly good selection of books and everything else in Yiddish.  I come here when I need a little inspiration to reignite my enthusiasm for the language.  It might be Yiddish boggle or a CD of techno music in Yiddish, but I always find something.  After checking out the comics and religiously themed children’s graphic novels, I found a book of first person narratives, relaying harrowing or otherwise touching true stories from people’s lives.  That’ll do the trick.

Walking back to the train, carrying some books bound for Stockholm and a couple for my own bookshelf, I couldn’t help but think that the Yiddish world of Boro Park was a far cry from the Yiddish world in Sweden.  Here the language is alive and dynamic, a true community language of deep importance for the very religious community that speaks it.  In Sweden, Yiddish is more of a relic, spoken by a dwindling number of elderly, often secular Jews, with little transmission to the young.  Yet here the language has very little recognition and no government funding, while in Sweden they seem to have the resources to dedicate to the language, but probably no more than a few thousand speakers in the whole country.  I started to wonder what place these books from Boro Park would have in a library in Sweden.  Even if these two pockets of Yiddish have little to no common ground, I suppose the important thing is that the language is being supported in one way or another wherever it can get support.

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Information about same-sex marriage laws in Sweden, courtesy of the Swedish Government.  A good example of the often stark contrast between the use of Yiddish in Sweden and the use of Yiddish in Boro Park.

Once home, I decided to make one more contribution to the presence of Yiddish in Boro Park by writing a Yelp review for Eichler’s, in Yiddish of course.  When I tried to post it, though, the Yelp language police didn’t like what I was doing, and the site wouldn’t support the Hebrew characters.

Luckily, Yiddish is a flexible language that has always had to adapt and navigate all sorts of policing, so in the end I found a way.

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“A very good bookstore, especially for books in Yiddish.  They’re always friendly and helpful.”


in search of a language unrecognised (part 2)

***This post is a “Part 2”.  If you’ve clicked directly to this entry, please check out Part 1 here.

Around 2005 I began to take an active interest in Tibetan again.  In the back pages of my Tibetan book I reread my notes from Rilong, and still wondered about this language.  My best conclusion was that I didn’t know what else it would likely be if not a variety of Kham Tibetan.  By chance, I found a Tibetan tutor that year who happened to come from the Kham region of western Sichuan.  He had left the area as a teenager and escaped to India where he lived in a Tibetan community before emigrating to Vancouver, Canada, where I was living at the time.  After I learned of his story, I brought my notes to our next lesson feeling quite certain he was going to settle my doubts once and for all. However, to my disappointment, he said it didn’t sound like any kind of Kham Tibetan that he’d ever heard and had no suggestions of what language it could be.

I returned to the internet, as one does in times of confusion, and was happy to find that there was significantly more information available this time.  The combination of an uncensored internet and the passage of 4 or 5 years yielded a good amount of results on the topic of the languages of western Sichuan.  Clicking around on Ethnologue, I came across a language listed as Jiarong, spoken in north central Sichuan, including Xiaojin County, where Si Guniang Mountain is.  The Xiaojin dialect was known as Situ.  Could this be it?  The entry said Jiarong was phonologically and lexically similar to Tibetan, with complex consonant clusters, though grammatically more similar to Qiang.  It certainly seemed to fit the bill.  The listed names for the language included Chiarong, dGyarung, Gyarong, Gyarung, Jarong, Jyarung, Keru, Rgyarong; Jiarong seemed to possibly be a Chinese pinyin rendering of a more “Tibetan-ish” sounding name.  With a little more poking around I came across the name rGyalrong.  Every other western Sichuan language that I found didn’t quite match geographically or had already been ruled out. I had a good feeling about this rGyalrong.  I was getting closer to an answer!

Now all I had to do was corroborate these findings with a language sample to compare the words and phrases I collected in Rilong with words and phrases in verified rGyalrong.  And here I met another road block.  I didn’t keep any record of it, but if memory serves me right, I was only able to find a paragraph long transcribed piece of a folk tale in an unspecified dialect of rGyalrong.  The text didn’t really help to confirm anything, but I did observe definite phonological similarities between the sample text and my collected data.  With hesitant joy, I tentatively concluded that the language I was after was probably rGyalrong…maybe.  Not exactly the definitive victory I was hoping for.

At any rate, another 9 or 10 years passed by, and I decided it was high time to start writing about all the language-related musings going on in my head.  The rGyalrong mystery was one of the first ideas that occurred to me because a.) everyone loves a good mystery and b.) I thought if I published the story, I might get some actual answers back.  So about three weeks ago, I started searching around online yet again for rGyalrong related information and found that in the past ten years rGyalrong studies and research has made leaps and bounds.  Before I could even begin to write my story, I was getting answers left and right.

The first search yielded exactly what I was looking for, a site actually called the rGyalrongic Languages Database.  It seems that during the years I was waiting for more information to become available, two linguists were working to collect, document, and record lexical items from rGyalrong dialects.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  In their database I was able to specify the dialect of Rilong Town and find 200 sentences transcribed, all with audio.  There was also a lexicon of hundreds of individual words!  It was an incredibly thorough project.  I scrambled for my notes and began to compare.

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A few discrepancies popped out, but at first glance, the two number sets looked extremely similar.  My data tends to favour unvoiced consonants, while the database uses voiced consonants, but that isn’t terribly surprising.  As a native speaker of English I am bound to have the tendency to hear unvoiced, unaspirated consonants as voiced.  My list apparently also has six and seven mixed up, but that could be the result of confusion collecting data on my part or the part of my informant.  Finally, number nine is a bit of a mystery.  I couldn’t find anything in the database resembling /sa’sɔm/, so I assume I wrote down the wrong item and/or it means “I don’t know”, “I forget”, or “I’m bored – can we please stop doing this?”.  At any rate, things were looking good.  It seemed that after all this time, rGyalrong was indeed the language!  But just to double check…

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Further confirmation!   My informant’s version of hello/你好 is an obvious calque from Chinese, which is apparently used by at least one speaker but is very probably not a native expression.  The database gave a different phrase, but as a calque the word-to-word translation checks out.  “Where are you going?” was also confirmed, though with the same voiced/unvoiced error.  And finally, the second word for “good” also checks out.  Incidentally, /kʊˈsna/ was the word for good listed under Rilong, whereas almost all the other towns in Xiaojin County used /dɛˈla/.  I’m not sure of the background of my friend in Rilong, but he seems to use both.  In addition to what is listed above, I was able to corroborate at least 5 or 6 other scribblings of mine, and at long last I could put a name to this language I’d though so much about:  rGyalrong!

After a moment of contentment, the questions came flooding.  So who were the rGyalrong anyway?  And why did they call themselves Tibetans?  And why had nobody ever mentioned them to me while I was in Sichuan?  As luck would have it, an ethnography of the rGyalrong people was published just last year.  The book is titled  rGyalrong, Conservation and Change, written by David Burnett, who lived in Sichuan and studied the cultures of the western half of the province right around the time I first encountered the term rGyalrong online.  This wealth of information was incredible after such a long wait.


The rGyalrong are one of the many ethnic and linguistic groups of western Sichuan.  Due to the extreme nature of the mountains and valleys where they live, they have been relatively isolated throughout much of their history, resulting in a wide variety of divergent dialects.  There is documentation of the rGyalrong as early as the Tang dynasty (AD 608-917) describing a legendary matriarchal society, ruled by a queen, protected by fortress-like watchtowers along a river of gold.  Ancient towers still stand, and the Dajin River (大金川, Big Gold River) flows through rGyalrong territory, historically rich in gold.  The term rGyalrong is actually an abbreviation of rGyal Mo Tsha Ba Rong (རྒྱལ་མོ་ཚ་བ་རོང), which means “The Queen’s River Valley” in Tibetan.  But why are they called by a Tibetan name? And why didn’t the people in Rilong tell me they spoke rGyalrong or even identify themselves as such?

The term rGyalrong is actually not a self-designation but a term used by outsiders (rendered in Chinese as Jiā Róng, 嘉绒).  The rGyalrong refer to themselves as Keru (/kəru/ or /kɯrɯ/ depending on the dialect), but to understand why they also identify as Tibetans, we have to look at the history of ethnic minorities in the People’s Republic of China.  Before the establishment of the PRC the rGyalrong were ruled by local chieftains, Tu Si (土司).  They had religious and cultural ties to Tibet via Gelug-pa Buddhism and had contact with the Han Chinese to the east, but they enjoyed relative independence from their larger neighbours.  With the establishment of the PRC and the occupation of Tibet, however, the rGyalrong were swallowed up and lost all autonomy.  In the 1950’s when the government set about to identifying and categorizing all of the minority nations in the newly expanded China, the rGyalrong, being small in numbers, were lumped in with the Tibetans.  To the present day, the rGyalrong are officially categorized as Zāng Zú (藏族), or Tibetan, and because of this denomination and the PRC’s approach to “promoting” ethnic minority cultures, many rGyalrong look towards Tibet (or rather an official, stereotyped version of Tibet) as a frame of reference for their own cultural identity.

So that basically answers most of my questions.  My host on Si Guniang Mountain was speaking rGyalrong, but identified both himself and his language as Tibetan, as per official policy.  After almost 15 years, the mystery of rGyalrong is solved!

I am grateful to have taken this journey.  Along the way we’ve encountered Standard Tibetan, Chinese, Qiang, Amdo Tibetan, Kham Tibetan, and finally rGyalrong.  I hope that rGyalrong continues to gain increased recognition and is able to resist the pressures of more dominant languages in the region.  It seems to me a very dangerous situation when a language is denied its own name and one group’s cultural identity is appended onto that of another group.  The resulting invisibility does not bode well for the future of the language.  I hope that by sharing my story, I can add a tiny bit to the ever growing store of information available about the Keru, or rGyalrong, people and encourage others to further document, support, and defend this language tucked away in the mountains of western Sichuan.


Well, there was one question that was left unanswered, in case you missed it.  From all of the new sources of information I have found, it sounds as if rGyalrong has never been put into writing, yet my informant wrote his name for me as I showed in the last post.  I haven’t been able to figure out what this script is, but I do have a vague guess.  In the bookstore in Hong Yuan, I found a beautiful book of different styles of Tibetan calligraphy, some of them quite different from the standard print.  This book probably deserves an entire post of its own, but for now I’ll share one page.


I can’t quite match any of the hand-written letters with the letters above, but it does suggest the possibility that there could be a style of handwriting for the Tibetan alphabet with a similar form that could be used to write words or names in rGyalrong.  After all, rGyalrong practitioners of Buddhism will still read scriptures in Tibetan and will at least be familiar with the Tibetan script.  This is merely conjecture though.  If anyone has any ideas about the writing sample above, or even about the usage of different styles of Tibetan calligraphy, please share!

in search of a language unrecognised (part 1)

As a native speaker of a major world language (and a learner of many others), I have come to realise that I take for granted the precision with which we define and delineate individual languages.  English is English, Korean is Korean.  Sometimes Dutch and Flemish cause some confusion, but even then we can slap the label Tussentaal on the grey area between the two.  And there are obviously many more examples of linguistic grey areas where opinions will differ on what to call a given community’s speech, but for the most part we’re not used to ambiguity when it comes to identifying languages.  Below I’d like to share the story of a language I encountered about 15 years ago and how I never really knew what it was until now.

In 2001 I moved to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in southwestern China.  The western half of the province is quite linguistically diverse, often referred to as the “ethnic corridor”.  In the mountains and grasslands of western Sichuan dialects of Tibetan and many varieties of Qiangic languages abound, many of them very isolated and mutually unintelligible with their neighbouring languages.  For most Han Chinese in Chengdu, though, the western regions of the province are simply “Tibetan”.

At my first chance, I took advice from a friend in Chengdu to visit a famous mountain called Si Guniang Shan (རི་བོ་སྐུ་བླ་འི།, 四姑娘山, Four Maidens Mountain) in Xiaojin County (小金县), Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture (རྔ་བ་བོད་རིགས་དང་ཆང་རིགས་རང་སྐྱོང་ཁུལ , 坝藏族羌族自治州).  

The scenery of Xiaojin County was incredible.  Having driven narrow, winding roads, teetering above the churning, cobalt Minjiang River, we eventually began to ascend into the clouds.   As the air became thinner and thinner, we finally arrived in Rilong Village (日隆镇).  I was excited by the change in scenery, new faces and mostly by the promise of a new language.  It was my first time in a Tibetan area, and understanding nothing about the broad variety of Tibetan dialects, I naïvely brought along my Learning Practical Tibetan text book, a perfectly adequate book for learning and practicing Standard Lhasa Tibetan. 


I arranged to stay in a family-owned guesthouse and quickly found myself sitting on the terrace chatting with one of the owners in Mandarin.  I asked him about the language he spoke with his family, and he confirmed that it was , or Tibetan.  I told him I had learned some Tibetan and tried a couple phrases, but nothing seemed to register.  I pulled out my Tibetan book and showed him some of the phrases written in Tibetan script.  “Oh, that’s not the Tibetan we speak here.  Ours is different,” he informed me.  I jumped to the conclusion that the local language was a divergent dialect of Tibetan and set about to asking him how to say different things in his dialect.

Here are a few of the things I jotted down on the spot in (questionable) IPA inside the back cover of my Tibetan book.

hello / 你好 – nɔ ɡəˈsna

where are you going? / 你去哪里? – nɔ ɡəzdəˈtʃʲɛ

good / 好 – dɛˈla

And the numbers 1-10:

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Comparing this set of numbers with the Standard Tibetan numbers, some loose parallels can be found – some vowels match and some consonants match at least in place of articulation , but it is clearly a different set of numbers.  The most obvious cognate is the number three – taking into account the written but not pronounced prefix g-, Standard Tibetan “three” is almost identical to my informer’s “three”.  

As for the sentences above, they bare no resemblance to their Tibetan counterparts.  Taking // to be “you” (the phrase for hello could possibly be a Chinese calque:  你好 “you good”), it seems completely different from ཁྱེད་རང་ /kʼʲɛɾaŋ/, you in Standard Tibetan.  None of this really gives any definitive information, but it is clear that the “Tibetan” in Rilong is something other than Tibetan as spoken in Tibet proper.

And finally I asked my new friend to write his name for me in Tibetan.  He said his Tibetan name was pronounced  /ɡʷɔɹ ʝʲa/.  To my surprise he wrote:


I could not identify this script at all, and it definitely didn’t resemble any Tibetan script I had ever seen up until that point.  This language was becoming curiouser and curiouser.

On the bus back to Chengdu, I couldn’t stop wondering about what this “different Tibetan” was exactly.  Back in the city I went online to see what bits of information I could piece together.  The government tends to block a lot of sites having to do with ethnic minorities in China, so I could only find basic facts at the time.  What I was able to find out was that much of Aba Prefecture, where I had been, was part of Amdo, one of three traditional regions of Tibet.  I also learned of Kham, another historical region of Tibet that encompasses much of western Sichuan Province.  Both of these regions were said to have their own Tibetan dialects.  In my searches I also came across the Qiang, an ethnic group living in mountainous areas west of Chengdu, who spoke a Tibeto-Burman language.  Could my friend in Rilong have been speaking Amdo or Kham Tibetan?  Could it have been Qiang, but just referred to as “Tibetan” due to cultural affinity or custom?  I began to wish I had been more systematic about collecting data on Si Guniang Shan.  I had had no idea I would have a linguistic mystery on my hands.


My next trip into western Sichuan allowed me to visit Qiang territory, specifically Taoping Village, which is also northwest of Chengdu, in Wenchuan County (汶川县).  In Taoping I found people living a largely traditional lifestyle.  Their stone, fortress-like houses topped off with tall watchtowers reflect a tumultuous past when the threat of the Chinese, Tibetans, or even neighbouring Qiang villages was ever looming.

In Taoping, the people were speaking a language with some phonological similarities to the language I heard in Rilong:  complex consonant clusters and a similar array of vowels sounds.  However, when I asked what language they spoke, people gave me a definitive answer:  Qiang (羌语).  When I asked them if their language was Tibetan or if they spoke Tibetan, the answer was always no.  The Qiang I met had no ambiguity about their language or identity.  Pulling out my notes from Rilong to ask about a few phrases, it became clear that Qiang was not the language I was looking for.

A Qiang conversation in Taoping Village

My third trip to northwestern Sichuan was back to Aba Prefecture, but this time a bit further from Chengdu, past the mountains and into the grasslands of Amdo.  This time I visited a place called Hongyuan (红原, རྐ་ཁོག་), a kind of one-yak town inhabited by Tibetans, Han Chinese, and some Hui Muslims, and frequented by Tibetan nomads from the surrounding areas.  Hongyuan was a stark contrast to the more mountainous regions I had visited.  From the edge of town all you could see in any direction was grassland extending to the horizon.  The Tibetans in Hongyuan emulated the image of Tibetans we often see in the west:  nomadic herders, long fleece-lined coats, hands busy with prayer wheels and prayer beads during idle moments.  I wondered if the language here would also be more recognisable.

As luck would have it, Hongyuan had a bookstore, where I was able to find some books for teaching children to read and write Tibetan, as well as an English textbook for Amdo Tibetan speakers.  I was happy to see that Amdo Tibetan was not all that different from Standard Tibetan.  Some differences in vocabulary, pronouns and verb endings were apparent, but the speech in Hongyuan was definitely Tibetan.  The biggest difference I noticed was that pronunciation in Amdo was much more conservative and much closer to the written word than in Standard Tibetan.

Tibetan syllables tend to be written with consonant prefixes and/or suffixes around the core of the syllable.  In Standard Tibetan these prefixes and suffixes are not usually pronounced per se, but instead they make their presence known by influencing the tone or vowel sound of the syllable.  In Amdo Tibetan, however, most of these prefixes and suffixes seemed to be pronounced, yielding quite complex consonant clusters.  Below are the numbers, as pronounced by a monk I met in Hongyuan.  Observing the spelling, you’ll see that he basically pronounces the numbers as they are written, unlike Standard Tibetan speakers.

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(On a side note, the consonant clusters are so prevalent in Amdo speech that I noticed some people inserting them into English words when they asked me to teach them how to say things in my language.  One monk bid me farewell by saying “zGood-rByez”.)

I left Hongyuan with a clear impression of Amdo Tibetan (at least as spoken in Hongyuan) and was loaded up with books to study and notes to review.  I felt no closer, however, to figuring out anything about the language I first encountered in Rilong months earlier.  If Amdo Tibetan wasn’t so drastically different from Standard Tibetan, then it seemed unlikely that Kham Tibetan would be any more different either.  I wasn’t sure Rilong fell within Kham territory anyway.  The Qiang theory had been disproven as well.  Some piece of information was missing, and nobody seemed to have any answers.  Soon after Hongyuan I left China, and for the next several years my language mystery would remain unsolved until new resources made themselves available.

a synthesis of odds and ends in reverence of language

This blog has been a long time coming.  For years i’ve jotted down notes in the back of books or on restaurant napkins, documenting linguistic points of interest as they arise.  In all these years, though, I have never taken the time to compile all these thoughts and observations and give them the consideration they deserve.  And until this past week’s Polyglot Conference in New York, I thought I would be hard pressed to find an audience for any of this stuff anyway.

The Polyglot Conference 2015 was a veritable orgy of unabashed linguistic fervor.  To see grown adults jump with joy over language books nearly brought a tear (of happiness) to my eye.  The dedication and talent of the attendees coupled with the variety of lectures made it a truly memorable event.

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One lecture that particularly resonated with me was that of Dr. Richard Benton.  He spoke of the importance of learning the languages of marginalized and underserved communities.  As a resident of Minnesota he sees learning and speaking Somali as a subversive act of social responsibility.  The Somali community in Minnesota is often overlooked and faces widespread discrimination.  Dr. Benton seeks to break down barriers and offer respect and dignity to this community by learning their language and putting himself in the compromised position of a learner when interacting with them.  This shifts the power dynamic and gives recognition to the community and its language.

This idea of offering dignity to a language by recognizing its value in the world, its value as a part of our linguistic ecosystem, has inspired me to begin sharing my thoughts and experiences.  Some of my entries will be reaching back to trips I took 15 years ago and languages I have not heard since.  I hope, however, that what information I am able to share will be of some use or interest to someone, as there is still to this day a surprising dearth of knowledge available online regarding lesser known languages.

I would also like to use this blog as a platform to share my current experiences with languages here in New York City. This city allows for some far-reaching cultural encounters and the number of languages one hears on the street every day is incredible.  The world’s diversity of languages deserves greater visibility, and it is to this end that I begin this project.