"Mixed" languages

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On Monday (11/26/16), Erika Sandman will be defending her doctoral dissertation on "A Grammar of Wutun" in the Faculty of Arts, Department of World Cultures, at the University of Helsinki.  I have a special interest in this type of "mixed" (for want of a better word) language that is situated at the interface between the Tibetic and Sinitic groups.  My fascination with the hybrid Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages of northwestern China derives from a number of factors, including the decades of fieldwork and historical research I have devoted to the region, the fact that the 14th Dalai Lama was born here, and the intriguing thought that — if Sinitic and Tibetic are indeed related in some fashion, as many people believe — the Gansu-Qinghai sprachbund constitutes a laboratory both for the study of Tibetic and Sinitic languages individually, but also for observing their interactions with each other and with the Turkic and Mongolic languages that have also prevailed here at different times and are still present today.

Two of my colleagues, Juha Janhunen and Kevin Stuart have dedicated much of their lives to research on precisely these issues; they and their students are not only documenting the languages of the region, they are utilizing their findings to investigate fundamental issues concerning the way contact languages develop.

Here is the abstract for Ms. Sandman's dissertation:

My dissertation is a comprehensive grammatical description of the Wutun language (ISO 639-3 WUH), a distinct local form of Northwest Mandarin spoken by approximately 4000 people in Upper Wutun, Lower Wutun and Jiacangma villages in Tongren County, Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, People s Republic of China. While the basic vocabulary and grammatical morphemes of Wutun are mainly of Chinese origin, it has adapted phonologically and structurally to its current linguistic environment, where varieties of Amdo Tibetan are dominant regional languages and lingua francas. The Tibetan influence manifests itself in all domains of Wutun grammatical structure, including phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon. This has yielded some phonological and grammatical properties that are unusual for a Sinitic language and cross-linguistically rare, including the size of the phoneme inventory, multiple aspect marking and egophoricity. In addition, there are some grammatical features, such as the paucal-plural distinction and sociative case marking, which represent areal interference from Bonan, a small Mongolic language spoken in the immediate vicinity of Wutun-speaking villages.

The dissertation is based on first-hand field data collected during three field trips to the province of Qinghai in June-August 2007, June-August 2010 and June-July 2013. My data consists of approximately 1300 clauses of descriptive and narrative texts as well as conversations that were complemented by elicitation and grammaticality judgements. The theoretical framework used for language description is based on an informal descriptive theory referred to in the literature as Basic Linguistic Theory (BLT) (Dixon 1997, 2010; Dryer 2006). My dissertation aims to detail aspects of Wutun phonology, morphology and syntax, including phoneme inventory, noun phrase, verb complex, minor word classes, clause structure, non-declarative speech acts and clause combining. It also includes an appendix with three oral texts in Wutun.

It is my hope that the present study will be accessible to a wide audience, including linguists working on Sino-Tibetan languages, languages of Northwest China, linguistic typology and historical linguistics.

Juha Janhunen explains further:

Other "mixed " languages of the same type are Gangou and Tangwang, which are also basically NW Mandarin but with an impact from Mangghuer (in Gangou) and Santa/Dongxiang (in Tangwang). Of course, it is also possible to classify the Mongolic languages of the region as "mixed", that is: Qinghai Bonan (Shirongolic + Amdo TIbetan), Gansu Bonan (Shirongolic + Amdo Tibetan + Hezhou Mandarin), Santa/Dongxiang (Shirongolic + Hezhou Mandarin), and also others. Personally, I do not believe in "mixed" languages, but these all are, of course, rapidly evolved local forms of languages that originally had a rather different grammatical structure and lexicon.

One of the most interesting groups of the Gansu-Qinghai sprachbund are the Yugurs, or Yellow Uyghurs.  Although their population amounts to less than 14,000, different elements among them speak languages related to one or another of the following:  Turkic, Mongolic, Sinitic, Tibetic.  Their religious background is equally complex:  Gnostic Christianity, Manicheism, Tibetan Buddhism, and shamanism, but surprisingly apparently not Islam.

Judging from what we find in the Gansu-Qinghai sprachbund, the fluidity of languages and cultures in contact is a remarkable demonstration of human adaptability at a fundamental level.

[h.t. Kaisa Kantola]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 8:09 am

    The URL for Erika Sandman's dissertation abstract is correct. The link was working yesterday; I do not know why it is not working today.

  2. Cervantes said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    Your link is, as you say, correct. It's the University's "E-Thesis" service that isn't working right now. Take a look: at the moment, Ms. Sandman's dissertation is second on the list; and neither it nor any other listed document is available.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

    It's working now, I just downloaded it! It looks fascinating.

    Random* quote:

    2 Phonology

    Wutun has a rather large phoneme inventory, consisting of 38 consonantal and 6 vocalic phonemes. The phonology of Wutun has been influenced by neighboring languages of the Amdo Sprachbund, most notably Amdo Tibetan. Therefore, Wutun phonology shows mixture of Chinese and Tibetan elements. The Amdo Tibetan influence manifests itself e.g. in the absence of tones and the presence of a set of voiced obstruents, as well as borrowed consonantal phonemes such as the voiceless dental lateral [ɬ]. On the other hand, Wutun has preserved the system of syllable-medial glides and syllable final, nasalized vowels [ũ] and [ĩ], which are characteristic features of Sinitic phonology. Both Chinese and Tibetan elements occur in several different layers. Therefore, Wutun has both inherited Sinitic vocabulary and recent loanwords borrowed from Standard Mandarin. Recent Standard Mandarin borrowings may contain phonemes that are only marginally attested in Wutun and do not occur in Northwest Mandarin and Amdo Tibetan vocabulary, such as the voiceless labiodental fricative [f]. The phonological system presented here represents the speech of Mr. Xiawu Dongzhou, a male speaker born in Wutun in 1966. It is important to note that there exists significant variation in the speech of different Wutun speakers and the phonological system postulated here may not be valid for all the speakers.

    * Yeah, right.

  4. JPL said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 10:34 pm

    I'm not familiar with the languages of that region, but linguistic areal or sprachbund phenomena are always interesting, and this one looks quite interesting for anyone interested in how language change is influenced by language contact phenomena. Could you possibly give us a little background on the sociolinguistic history of the speakers of Wutun?

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