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Dr. Alexis Michaud and the Naish Languages July 14, 2012

Posted by mikeopper in China, Individual Fellowship.
Tags: , , , ,

Mike Opper

I recently had the pleasure of visiting a French linguist, Dr. Alexis Michaud at his temporary home in Lijiang, Yunnan where he is currently conducting long-term fieldwork. Dr. Michaud has done extensive documentation work on three related languages in the Lijiang area: Naxi, Laze, and Yongning Na. The data collected by Dr. Michaud is hosted at the Pangloss Collection. He was trained as a phonetician in the Labo de Phonétique et Phonologie at Université Paris 3 under Dr. Jacqueline Vaissière.



Dr. Michaud eliciting data in his homemade soundproof recording studio.
Photo @Qin Qing (秦晴), 2012

In China, the Han ethnicity comprises 91% of the population and the remaining 9% of the population belong to one of the fifty-five official designated ethnic groups. The three languages which Dr. Michaud works on constitute the Naish sub-branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. These languages are each minority languages in the People’s Republic of China; their speakers are officially classified across three ethnic groups: Naxi, Mosuo, and Mongolian. Click here to see where these languages are spoken and for a language family tree of Sino-Tibetan.


Dr. Michaud taking a break with his family and a consultant after eliciting data.
Photo @Qin Qing (秦晴), 2012

Language policy in China promotes usage of Standard Chinese (commonly referred to as Mandarin Chinese in the US) over all other languages and as a result many Chinese dialects and minority languages are not being learned by younger generations. As a result many of these languages are on the brink of extinction. Naxi, with roughly 300,000 speakers, will probably persist for a few generations, but Na with roughly 40,000 speakers and Laze with less than 1,000 speakers are truly endangered.

Like Standard Chinese, the Naish languages are tone languages. This means that syllables with the same phonemic structure pronounced in a different tone result in different words. English is not a tone language. In English, a different tone on a given word does not change the meaning of that word. For instance, if I say “book” with different intonations there may be a feeling of puzzlement or anger, but the meaning of “book” does not change. The table below demonstrates that Naxi has four tones (the pronunciation is indicated in IPA – International Phonetic Alphabet)


I will end this entry on a comment about Lijiang. With roughly 200,000 residents in the urban center, Lijiang is a small city by Chinese standards. In ancient times, Lijiang was an important stop on the ancient tea route between India and China. In recent years, the tourism industry has taken off in Yunnan province with Lijiang being a major epicenter of tourist activity. The Old Town of Lijiang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. What was once a quaint city has become a major site for selling clothes, music, and tea to tourists from all over the world.

Like most college students who study abroad in China, I went to study Chinese in a large city on the east coast. My first China experience was in 2007 at Nanjing University. At that time, to check e-mail and use the internet one would need to use internet cafes–even in large cities. Wireless internet is now available all over China; in the household, on college campuses, and even by USB drive in the most desolate places. Much to my surprise, this visit to Yunnan has shown me that just within these past five years household technology, which was once a true luxury, is becoming commonplace throughout all of China (even in the so-called “backwater” places).



1. Jonathan Evans - August 30, 2012

Thanks for sharing this. Nice to see pictures of my old friend in situ.
Jonathan Evans

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