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:

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 07.13.31 p.m.

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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 08.30.06 p.m.

(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.