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

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

fighting for linguistic autonomy on International Uyghur Language Day

You hear the call to prayer echo through busy streets of vendors selling samsalar (سلمسالار, cf. samosa), polu (پولۇ, cf. pilaf) and kawaplar (كاۋاپلار, cf. kebab). Many of the women are wearing brightly coloured headscarves and many of the men have beards or moustaches. Signs written in the Arabic script and the sounds of a language not unlike Turkish would never have you guessing that you’re actually in China. And this isn’t merely a small border region, but a large area encompassing deserts and mountain ranges that have been under Chinese occupation since 1949. The area is referred to in Chinese as Xinjiang (新疆 = new frontier) and covers a sixth of China’s land mass. Many locals would prefer to call it East Turkestan, though this term is officially banned in the region. East Turkestan/Xinjiang is home to a large number of ethnic groups, each with their own identity, language, and culture, but the Uyghurs are the most populous. They number over 10 million, however outside of China they are scarcely known.

The Uyghur people (pronounced /ˈwɡər/ in English) have received only limited attention in international media regarding the oppression they face by the Chinese government and the subsequent violence that erupts between the two groups. Ilham Tohti is a well-known Uyghur economist and outspoken supporter of autonomy and freedom in Xinjiang who is now serving a life sentence on unfounded charges of separatist activity. He has been lauded in the west for his fight for the freedom of speech of Uyghurs. The wrongful detainment of a group of Uyghurs at Guantánamo Bay, some for over ten years, was reported in the media, but this gave no attention to the problems Uyghurs face in Xinjiang. Very little is ever reported on the systematic sinofication of the Uyghurs’ homeland and the ensuing cultural damage threatening their traditions and language.

Uyghur is a Turkic language spoken by about 10 million people in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and in the neighbouring countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. There are also diaspora communities in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Small communities of Uyghurs have also migrated for work to cities throughout China. Highly agglutinative in nature, the language resembles other Turkic languages, though with a significant amount of vocabulary borrowed from Chinese. It is written in a modified Arabic script.

I haven’t had much contact with Uyghurs since I left China in 2002 – after all, the diaspora communities that exist are quite small and low profile. Two events this month, however, have motivated me to revisit the topic of the Uyghurs and their language. The first is the Chinese government’s strict controls on and surveillance of the Uyghurs’ celebration of the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

For several years now the Chinese government has had an official policy of (further) restricting freedom of religion in Xinjiang and even outlawing the observance of Ramadan. Anyone with a government job is forbidden from fasting during Ramadan. The fact that the government pays their salary means that they can withhold payment if any non-compliance is suspected. Young people under the age of 18 are forbidden from participating in any religious activities, including visiting mosques, studying the Qur’an, and fasting. During Ramadan some high school students observing the fast have been forced to eat at school or suffer punishment. Uyghur-owned restaurants must maintain normal business hours and stock food and alcohol during the month of Ramadan or face possible fines and/or harassment. The Uyghurs face discrimination and pressure to assimilate year round, but during this month in particular they are under much closer surveillance and surrounded by a heightened military presence in the region.

The second event this month is International Uyghur Language Day, today June 15th. The annual commemoration was inaugurated by the World Uyghur Congress in 2015 to bring attention to the linguistic plight of the Uyghurs and to defend their right to receive an education in their own language. Since 9/11 the Chinese government has been increasingly pressuring Uyghurs to conform to Han Chinese culture and has adopted assimilationist policies such as the so-called bilingual education.  In reality the Bilingual Education Policy is a transition to monolingual Mandarin-medium education aimed at “helping” Uyghur-speaking children adjust by blurring the lines of cultural identity between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. The adoption of Mandarin for the sake of integration comes at the cost of the Uyghur language. The Uyghur population, with its youth exposed exclusively to Mandarin in schools, is naturally worried about the fate of their mother tongue.

In 2015 the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, D.C. released a report on the effects of “bilingual education” on the Uyghur youth of Xinjiang today. The report found that the regional government has set a goal of having nearly the entire Uyghur student population enrolled in “bilingual schools” by the year 2020. As it stands, they have achieved about half of their goal. To accomplish this the government is spending over US$700 million, money which would be more wisely and justly spent improving educational resources through the medium of the Uyghur language. Xinjiang’s Party Secretary Wang Lequan commented in 2002 that minority languages lack the vocabulary for modern science and technology and this renders education in these languages “impossible”. However, if the government is prepared to increase spending on education by hundreds of millions of dollars, I don’t see how more up-to-date educational materials, terminology, and training in Uyghur couldn’t just as easily be provided. The quality of education is clearly not the issue at hand.

The Chinese Communist Party has often equated a distinct Uyghur cultural identity (and language) with an affinity towards terrorism and separatist ideology. Furthermore, opposition to government policies such as bilingual education can get one labeled as a terrorist or separatist. Parents who do decide to send their children to “bilingual” schools are told that their children will have more job opportunities in the future due to their Mandarin language skills. In reality though, these children will still face systemic discrimination in the job market and severe competition from the droves of Han Chinese workers who are brought into Xinjiang from the east specifically to fill job positions. Either parents keep their children from bilingual education and risk being labeled terrorists, or they submit their children to a system that is designed to discriminate against them and distance them from their own language.

In the media, the situation is no better. There is a lack of Uyghur language print materials compared to what is available in Mandarin, and Uyghur language websites are subject to especially heavy censorship (the Chinese internet is already censored in the first place). In July of 2009 demonstrations in Ürümqi against the discrimination of Uyghurs turned into a violent riot. In response, the government shut down the internet in Xinjiang for ten months in order to inhibit communication and the spread of information. In May of the following year when internet service was restored, the vast majority of Uyghur language websites had been taken down, even though most of them did not contain religious or political content.

Two months ago, five web administrators and writers for Uyghur-language websites were detained in anticipation of the politically sensitive time of Ramadan. Some of the detainees have still not been released and have not been allowed any contact with the outside world. Through intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment the amount of platforms for original literature, news, and commentary in Uyghur is steadily decreasing, and the lack of Uyghur language education means that fewer children will master the language enough to create new content in the future. The CCP is doing its best to take away the voice of the Uyghur people.

I’m writing today to bring attention to the struggle of this language and culture. In the case of the Uyghurs, linguistic freedom is one of the many human rights being denied to them. As we see more languages die every year, it is important to keep in mind that this decline is not something that happens in an instant. It takes years of constant pressure and adversity to bring a whole linguistic community down to its last few speakers. Uyghur still has a strong population of speakers, but with the youngest speakers being strategically targeted, something will need to change soon to stave off the decline of this very old and very beautiful language.

Rebiya Kadeer, President of the World Uyghur Congress and human rights activist has said, “We should be proud of our language, culture and ethnicity. Only by saving our language can we save the Uyghur people and our heritage.” To commemorate International Uyghur Language Day, during the month of Ramadan when so many Uyghurs are subject to even greater persecution, I encourage you to learn about the situation in East Turkestan/Xinjiang, spread the word, and perhaps learn your first words in the Uyghur language:

Yaxšimusiz? (ياخشىمۇسىز؟) – Hello!/How are you?

Qandaq ähwalingiz? (قانداق ئەھۋالىڭىز؟) – How is your health?

Yaxši (ياخشى) – Good/well.

Rähmät (رەھمەت) – Thank you.

Iš ömlüktä, küč birliktä. (.ئىش ئۆملۈكتە، كۈچ بىرلىكتە) – (Proverb) Work should be done with a group, power comes from unity.

Check back in for a more in-depth look at the Uyghur language itself in a future post.  Until then, here is a well-known Uyghur folk song:


creolization and decreolization: Portuguese and Patuá in Macau

N.B. During the course of my exploration of Creole languages, I have come to question and disagree with a lot of common theories about the development of Creoles, some of which are included in my blog posts. For a more thorough and critical look at Creole languages, I welcome you to read my more recent articles on the Wikitongues Blog here.

Studying Papiamentu and learning about its history has made me think more about the influence of the Portuguese language throughout the world. Not only is Portuguese spoken in several countries across the globe, but the number of creole languages that it has spawned is remarkable. Given the expanse of the Portuguese trading empire, however, this is only natural. Portuguese traders and colonizers encountered many different languages and cultures in their global pursuits, resulting in a variety of Portuguese-based hybrid languages emerging in the Caribbean, West Africa, India, and East Asia.

IMG_0661 - Version 2
Ruins of St. Paul’s, Macau’s most famous landmark

When visiting Macau last year, the native creole of the former Portuguese colony caught my attention. The language is commonly called Patuá or Maquista Chapado and is often also referred to as Macanese Creole, or in Portuguese as Macaense. I learned of Patuá as a gravely endangered linguistic relic and cultural artifact spoken by less than 50 people in Macau and perhaps by an additional few hundred individuals in the Macanese diaspora. Indeed it was hard to find any traces of Patuá in modern day Macau, but standard Portuguese has certainly left its mark and continues to coexist alongside Cantonese among an active, though very small, lusophone community.

creolization: Papia Cristám di Macau

The Portuguese have had a presence in Macau since the early 16th century. Macau quickly became an important trading hub and linked commerce between other Portuguese trading posts in Goa (India),  Malacca (Malaysia), and Nagasaki (Japan). Given the constant migration in and out of Macau, it is only natural that a community of people with mixed heritage was born and that they would develop a language of their own, a creole language no doubt. As I’ve mentioned before, a creole language arises from contact between two or more different language communities, blending all the languages spoken by the population. It starts out as more of a rudimentary code of vocabulary items called a pidgin.  Once a generation of children grows up hearing this pidgin as their primary language, they organically develop a grammar and more complete vocabulary, essentially creating a fully functioning language known as a creole. In the case of Macau, this creole language was Patuá and its community the Macanese.

Portuguese trade routes (1580-1640) shown in green. Source: The Red Hat of Pat Ferrick at the English language Wikipedia

The Macanese people originate from the intermarriage of Portuguese sailors and traders with women from Goa, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Malacca, and Nagasaki, as well as some Chinese converts to Catholicism and women from local Tanka communities. The community took on many aspects of Portuguese culture and life, including Catholicism, government and legal professions, and a Portuguese education system, but the language they spoke at home better reflected their diverse origins. Macanese creole, like other Portuguese-based creoles, is essentially a grammatically simplified version of Portuguese with vocabulary and influences from Cantonese, Malay, Papia Kristang (Malaccan Portuguese-based creole), Konkani, Marathi, Sinhala, Japanese, Indo-Portuguese, and English. The following are some examples of lexical items in Patuá by language of origin.


The vast majority of lexical items in Patuá are derived directly from Portuguese, sometimes via other Portuguese-based creoles. Below are just a few.

vagar (from the Portuguese vagar – free time): slow, free time.

torâ-português (from the Portuguese verb torrar – to roast, to toast): someone who speaks (standard) Portuguese poorly.

papiâ (from the Portuguese verb papear – to chat): to speak.  This word is also used in the Papiamentu language and is the source of that language’s name.  Incidentally, Papiaçám is another name for the Macanese Creole.

Língu Cristám (from the Portuguese língua cristã – Christian language): Macanese Creole, Patuá. Using the verb mentioned above, papiâ Cristám, “to speak Christian”, can mean to speak either Portuguese or Macanese Creole.

nhônha, nhôm (from the Portuguese senhora senhor – madame & mister): girl & boy, respectively.


vun (from the Cantonese 碗, wun2 – bowl): bowl.

pai-mai (a calque of the Chinese phrase 爸爸媽媽 using the Portuguese words pai mãe):  parents.

chau-cháu (from the Cantonese 炒, caau2 – to fry): a stir-fry.

atâi, amui (from the Cantonese 阿弟 and 阿妹 – younger brother and younger sister, respectively): used to refer to a Chinese boy or girl, usually of lower social standing.

amochâi (from the Portuguese amor – love, with the diminutive Cantonese suffix 仔zai2 – son, child): sweetheart, darling.

tu-tum-piám (from the Cantonese 頭痛片, tau4tung3pin3 – headache pill): a useless person, idiot.

pacfanista (from the Cantonese 白粉, baak6fan2 – white powder, i.e. heroin or cocaine): a drug addict.  Note the use of the Portuguese suffix -ista. 

Malay (possibly via KristangMalaccan Portuguese Creole):

santám (from the Malay santan): coconut milk.

côpo-côpo (from the Malay kupu-kupu):  butterfly.

Other languages:

cháli (from the Marathi गल्ली, galli – way, lane, back street): small narrow street, lane.

auábe (from the Japanese 鮑/あわび, awabi): abalone.

bói (from the English boy): child waiter, busboy.

cacai (from the English cock-eyed): one-eyed or cross-eyed.

cacús (from the Dutch kakhuis – shit house): latrine, outhouse.

a small grammar of Macanese Creole

The grammar of Patua has characteristics typical of other creoles (particularly other Portuguese-based creoles), as well as grammatical elements from Cantonese and Malay. Patuá has no definite articles, no verb conjugation, and only one set of pronouns to indicate subject, object, and possession.

The pronouns are iou (I/me), vôs (you), and êle (he/him, she/her, it), nôs (we, us), vosôtro (you, pl.), ilôtro (they, them). To create the possessive pronouns, the suffix -sa/-sua is added to each pronoun.

Verbs have one basic form, which can be used alone as a present tense verb, an imperative, or an infinitive. Some common verbs, all derived from Portuguese, are sâm (from the 3rd person plural são), têm (to have, to be located), vêm (to come), vai (to go), querê (to want), sabe/sá (to know), pôde  (to be able)comê (to eat),  (to read), olâ (to see, look).  Verbs are negated with nôm.

Iou papiâ Cristám. = I speak Macanese Creole.

Ele sâm Macau-filo. = He is a native Macanese. (literally Macau-son)

Ilôtro nôm têm na casa. = They are not at home.

Iou nôm sá / Iou nôm sabe. = I don’t know.

Qui-cuza vôs querê comê? = What do you want to eat?

Verb tenses are usually conveyed by various particles.  The particle  (from the Portuguese está, to be [doing something]) is used to indicate present progressive. The past tense is created by using the particle já (Portuguese for already), and the future is indicated by lôgo (from logo, later).

Qui-cuza vôs tâ papiâ? = What are you saying?

Úndi vôs tâ vai? = Where are you going?

Já olâ? = Did you see? (i.e. Do you get it?)

Iou já comê hám-chói. = I ate hum choy (pickled vegetables).

Nôs lôgo vai iscôla. = We will go to school.

Pai-mai lôgo vêm sentâ. = My parents will come sit (i.e. visit).

Noun plurals are indicated by reduplication, as in Malay. The same process can also be used to add emphasis to an adjective.

Vôs têm quanto filo-filo? = How many children do you have?

Ilôtro já vêm cedo-cedo. = They came very early.

Finally, one pattern familiar to speakers of any variety of Chinese also made it’s way into Patuá. To ask a yes-no question the following pattern is used: verb + negation + verb.

Vôs querê-nôm-querê? = Do you want it?

Vôs sábe-nôm-sábe papiâ Patuá? = Do you know how to speak Patuá?

You can see that, as with other creoles, not only are the grammar and phonology simplified and influenced by other languages, but the lexicon is also altered to include words that reflect the diversity and history of the language community. It should also be noted that, like most creoles, Patuá has no standardized spelling.


Patuá quickly became the primary language of the small Macanese community. For centuries it has been the pride of its speakers. Poems and songs extol the sweetness of this Dóci Papiaçám (sweet language), yet another name for the language. Patuá was the language of the home and family, the language dearest to the Macanese people. The rise of Patuá, however, did not mean that Portuguese ceased to be spoken in Macau.

Standard Portuguese remained the language of government and education, and students were taught to speak this “proper” Portuguese at school instead of “broken” Portuguese, i.e. Patuá. As more people arrived from Portugal  to work in the government, courts, schools and trade, the importance of the Portuguese language only grew. A command of the language of Portugal remained essential for upward mobility. By the 20th century, Macanese Creole had come to be associated with the lower class and with women, who were generally neither educated nor employed. The pressure to conform to the linguistic standard of Portuguese began to overwhelm Macau’s beloved language. Emigration to Hong Kong and elsewhere then further reduced the number of Patuá speakers in Macau, nearly decimating the creole-speaking community. Leading up to and during this time some writers such as José dos Santos Ferreira began to write poems, short stories, and even novels in Patuá, committing the language to writing for the first time. But it was too late. The numbers of speakers had dropped too low, and transmission of the creole to the youth had essentially stopped.

This is a phenomenon called decreolization, whereby a creole language starts to converge with its parent language due to social and cultural pressures. The influence of the parent language becomes so strong that the creole begins to lose its unique features until it eventually gets absorbed into the more prestigious parent language. Today most Macanese in Macau might know a few Patuá expressions or words, but the language they speak is Portuguese (and/or Cantonese, for that matter).

Today Patuá is still spoken regularly by a only handful of mostly elderly people in Macau, but even the Patuá that has been preserved is said to have undergone a degree of decreolization, ceasing to be the same dóci língu that it once was.  Despite this, younger generations do have a strong appreciation for their community’s creole, even if they are unable to speak it. One of the ways in which the youth have been able to engage with the language is through the Macanese theatre. Blending traditions of popular Portuguese theatre and Chinese folk drama, Macanese theatre is performed in Patuá and satirizes traditional culture and contemporary social issues.

Doci Papiaçám di Macau is a drama group, started by Miguel de Senna Fernandes, that performs in Patuá (with surtitles in Portuguese, Chinese, and English), keeping the tradition of Macanese theatre alive in Macau. Some members are older Patuá speakers, but the bulk of the group is comprised of younger Macanese who presumably need to learn the language for their annual performances at the Macao Arts Festival every May. The group has also created a number of videos in Patuá that parody daily life in Macau. Fernandes recognises that Patuá has no hope of ever becoming the daily language of the Macanese community again. The task at hand is rather to showcase and preserve the memory of this language that was the voice of the Macanese people for hundreds of years. Even if Patuá is no longer spoken, Doci Papiaçám di Macau makes the culture of Patuá relevant to the younger generations of Macanese.

Miguel de Senna Fernandes and others talking about Macanese theatre (in Portuguese,  Patuá, and Cantonese):

Macau Sâm Assi (This is Macau), parody of the song Lisboa é Assim, performed by Dóci Papiaçám di Macau:


If Patuá is nearly extinct, then what is the fate of the Portuguese language in Macau? There has never been more than a small minority of Portuguese-speakers in the former colony, and today only about 3% of the population speaks Portuguese natively, though about 7% claim fluency. Many predicted that with the return of Macau to China in 1999, Portuguese would slowly become obsolete and cease to have any importance. The numbers of students studying Portuguese began to drop in the 90’s, but in the past decade the language has steadily been gaining popularity in Macau. Portuguese is doing better than ever, and interestingly enough, this growth is not coming from within the Macanese community.

China has realised that the unique cultural heritage of Macau can be used for economic gain and in 2003 designated Macau as the bridge to the lusophone world, particularly Brazil and Portuguese-speaking Africa. Macau is China’s ticket to these growing economies, and students from all over the country are going to Macau to study Portuguese and profit from these cultural ties. In fact, many graduates are finding that their ability to speak Portuguese is getting them head-hunted right out school, earning higher salaries than their counterparts who only studied English. Portuguese is the competitive edge, and recently there are almost as many students studying Portuguese in Macau as there are fluent speakers in the territory.

At the same time, high unemployment rates in Portugal are resulting in many Portuguese moving to Macau to find work. Portuguese-speaking doctors, professors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals are in demand and are relocating to the former colony to take jobs they can’t get at home. Brazilians, Angolans, and other lusophones are also taking advantage of these opportunities. All of this, of course, adds to the relevance of Portuguese to modern-day Macau.

Despite Macau’s renewed position in Lusophonia, the already “decreolized” Macanese community faces another very real cultural threat: that of being absorbed by the Chinese-speaking majority. Portuguese in Macau is greatly overshadowed by Cantonese and, increasingly, Mandarin and English. Most signs are bilingual (Portuguese and Chinese), and recorded announcements tend to include Portuguese, but you would be hard-pressed to hear a Portuguese conversation while walking down the street. It’s something that you have to seek out.

On my short visit, I didn’t have any time to waste seeking out lusophone enclaves, so I went straight to the Livraria Portuguesa, the Portuguese Bookstore. I found exactly one Portuguese speaker at the bookstore, from Portugal, not Macau, judging by his accent. The store itself was well stocked, and I ended up getting a book on cultural traditions in Macau and a wonderful dictionary of words and expressions in Patuá, the only book on the subject that is available, I was told. When it came time to pay, the Portuguese speaker had disappeared and I had to conduct the transaction in Cantonese. It seems that even in the Livraria Portuguesa, Portuguese is rare and fleeting.

All of this is not to say that Portuguese heritage isn’t visible. Walking around parts of the old city, you could easily mistake your surroundings for a neighbourhood of Lisbon. The colonial architecture is well preserved, and it is Macau’s most captivating characteristic. Catholicism is also alive and well and remains crucial to the identity of the Macanese. As I wandered the city looking at churches and searching for the best pastéis de nata, the saudade was palapable. Everywhere you look, there is evidence of a world that is trying its best not to fade away.

Outside of the narrow lanes and alleys of the Old Town, a new and more urban Macau is booming. With modern casinos bringing in droves of Mandarin-speaking mainland tourists and business, the pressures of Chinese on the already outnumbered  Portuguese-speaking community are greater than ever. If the unique culture of Macau has any future in the long run, it will be because of its relevance to the international lusophone community. The Macanese people exist because of Macau’s place in the international Portuguese trading empire, and their survival will be for the same reason.


Most of the examples of Patuá in the post were pieced together from the following two sources:

Maquista chapado: vocabulário e expressões do crioulo português de Macau (2001), by Miguel Senna Fernandes and Alan N. Baxter.

Como ta vai?  Miguel Senna Fernandes’ Patuá blog.

Other helpful resources:

Caderno do Oriente

Gráfová, Miluše. Português de Macau – Magisterská diplomová práce2013.

Macau Antigo

Néno, tâ vai contá

PCB Magazine

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 08.36.58 p.m.

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…

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 08.36.37 p.m.

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.