At the height of the Qing dynasty, Manchu was the language of emperors. It was the language that filled the nation’s courts, and the only one spoken by the nation’s leader. Today though, the language that ruled the country during the powerful Qing Dynasty until 1911 is spoken by a mere 70 people on the planet.
The decline of Manchu is far from an isolated case. As the world becomes more interconnected, languages everywhere are dying out at an unprecedented rate. In China alone, 144 languages linger on the brink of extinction, most with no more than a few dozen speakers left.
Preserving endangered languages can be a polarizing issue. In a country where the dialects are so diverse that two mostly widely spoken ones are mutually unintelligible, it can be tempting to write the death of another language off with a good riddance.
These languages, though, encode in them a culture and all of the relics of their history. Ma Yongquan, an artist working to preserve the endangered Zhuang language, told Xinhua that the folk songs of his people simply “could not be expressed in any other written language.” The grammar, phrasing, and wit of a distinct language is inexpressible in any other, and influences even the very thoughts of a people into their own unique style, all of which die with it.
Photo: Arian Zwegers
Politics and the decline of minority languages
The decline of minority languages in China has gone hand-in-hand with the changes in the government. When the People’s Republic of China was formed, minority cultures were given some freedom, and the nation was peppered with autonomous areas governed by minority groups. Even this brief recognition, though, was just a scheduled first step in the planned transition into socialism. From the start, Mao’s intention was for nations and states across the world to fade and be united into one.
With the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, minority languages and unique cultures were increasingly discouraged. State propaganda boasted and promoted an enthusiasm among minority groups to discard their own languages for Putonghua: the standardized version of Mandarin Chinese. The constitution was continually revised, from “encouraging” minority languages to “allowing” them, and then to requiring that Putonghua be promoted nationally.
The unique and diverse cultures of China went through an accelerated process of homogenization, and cultures and languages died out. As of 1979, the government stopped recognizing small minority groups. Instead, minority cultures became lumped into one of the 55 pre-defined groups the government acknowledged out of the over 400 groups that applied for minority status.
For a long time, there was no effort to preserve these languages and cultures, while every effort was made to erode them. The nation has, however, significantly changed this approach, especially since observing and learning from the fall of the Soviet Union. The government now offers reparations and benefits to minorities, and encourages people to stand up to be recognizing as members of distinct culture within the nation.
A new drive to preserve the languages and cultures
Though many languages have already died out, the PRC today is working with UNESCO to preserve its endangered languages. Their main effort works with members of minority cultures to keep them alive. They partner with endangered language speakers to translate and publish a number of major Chinese works, such as Mao’s Red Book, and to record traditional stories and songs so that a usable record of the language will always be available.
It’s a program that the government takes an intense pride in, but there are some critics who feel it isn’t enough. The program requires applying languages to present a standardized version with a phonetic pinyin, meaning that any dialect variations are deliberately left unpreserved.
It’s a start nonetheless. Perhaps, though, the real question isn’t whether the government is doing enough but whether these languages can realistically be saved at all. In a world that becomes more interconnected every day, it becomes more and more necessary to be able to make yourself understood through a widely-spoken language, and increasingly difficult to keep the little splashes of distinct cultures alive. UNESCO measures the decay of a language by the number of speakers using it at home, and scribbling down an old folk song in a fading tongue hardly keeps the language in regular use.
The real struggle to preserve a language can’t be fought by a government or by armchair advocates overseas – it has to be fought by the people who speak it. For a language to truly survive, it’s not enough to just preserve old culture – it has to continue to create and proliferate new culture.
Unfortunately, some linguistic researchers have left the field discouraged on this note, and the Ethnologue of the world’s language lists many of China’s endangered languages as holding “indifference” amongst its remaining speakers.
Some, however, are still working to survive, and their preservation comes through adapting to the technology that threatens them. Tibet, in particular, is working hard to include support for its language in as many aspects of information technology and the internet as possible.
The future of the minority languages of China remains uncertain. As it always does, the nation can be trusted to preserve a strong record of his ever-continuing history and heritage – but whether these distinct languages and cultures will continue to thrive remains to be seen.
Will China’s endangered languages ever again be spoken from a mother to her child? Or is Manchu’s fate the best we can hope for – for the languages to be preserved as a relic of history, stored in a dusty corner of a library, untouched and unused?
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Keywords: China’s endangered languages decline of minority languages
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3 Comments Add your comment
Its very unfortunate how many languages around the world are extinguishing with advancement in socio-economic status of a society. These days people fly to more developed cities and learn the more common or global languages, ofcourse for their own benefit, in order to suit the requirements of employers, leaving their own languages behind. We for sure cannot blame anyone. I think the goverment can pen down a policy or a scheme to save those languages under a brink of extinction. I myself am from Dai(Tai/Thai) minority in India. Its hurtful to see how gradually young people from my society are unable to verse in my language.I can see my language fading away infront of my eyes, but I am completely helpless.
Oct 23, 2014 16:34 Report Abuse
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Oct 10, 2016 00:12 Report Abuse
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