March 23, 2004

He said, she said. Chinese government is trying to save an obscure language handed down only to women of the Yao ethnic group. The language has a radically different written form called Nu Shu most of which is now lost. Here you can click on some examples. A general reference page on Nu Shu. Finally, the Wikipedia article. A little more info on the Yao people.
  • let's post all our comments today in nu shu, in solidarity with the women! um... you go first.
  • 文教大学!
  • Wow. Awesome post. Thanks!
  • Other than from an linguistic-athropological standpoint, how exactly does saving their obscure language *help* the Yao? By trying (vainly, most likely) to halt the inculcation of Mandarin (or whatever) into that culture, they are only increasing the Yao's cultural marginalization. As an artifact, Nu Shu ought certainly could be studied; as a language viable for day-to-day use? Wouldn't they be better off speaking the language of the dominant culture? *waits patiently for languagehat to come in and reduce my argument to rhetorical rubble*
  • Well, I don't think the preservation is going to be of the "let's teach it in schools" kind. But you don't think it's important to have a piece of this sub-culture's history not be forgotten? The justification for saving Nu Shu is the same as the "justification" for the study and preservation of any kind of history. Particularly with the Chinese, who had so much of their history destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The idea of a culture being forgotten, or a language dying as these elder women die... just strikes me as really abhorrent.
  • Many peoples wish to know their history, touch their forebearers' roots, and understanding the language of grandparents can be important in grasping how ancestors thought and lived. And, too, knowing the past may help now in avoiding the same mistakes their ancestors made.
    Glad I don't feel it incumbent on me to rush out and slaughter any folk named Campbell, simply because some of that clan, way back when, killed some of my ancestors at a place called Glen Coe, when times were very bloody in the Highlands. There is great interest now in bringing bring back the Gaelic, just as folk in Wales wish to emphasize Welsh, and so on. People are curious about such things, and I think such knowledge can have many uses for the individual. Links to relish and savour -- thanks, pyrrthon1.
  • I shudder to think what artistic & scientific minds were starved from lack of learning, what beauty was lost forever because generations of women simply could not express themselves. Studying their language preserves an important part of China's history, and also shines light on a movement that persisted simply because women wanted to say *something* and be heard by others. Use of Nu Shu may seem unnecessary today, but it's essential for China to discover what hidden treasures they have in their women.
  • Lovely links! they are only increasing the Yao's cultural marginalization OUCH, Fes! Not to dis you, but that sounds to me like the type of thinking behind sending the Navaho kids off the rez to live with white *civilized* families. I SO envy my cosmopolitian European friends that speak 3-4 languages. Even down the road here in Idaho are folks that are bi-lingual English/Spanish. Folks are adaptable--I'm sure the kids can learn whatever language they need to know to move around in the larger culture while the Yao continue to maintain their own--language included. IMO It's this food thing that's puzzling me. Rice, corn, sweet potato and murphies make up their staple food. Daily vegetables include soybean, radish, bamboo shoot, agaric and etc. Murphies? Anybody know what this is and how it's prepared? Agaric? Not Amanita, I hope! Some kind of mushroom, perhaps? "oil tea" is a kind of daily necessity Now, that sounds nasty, but I could be wrong, as I don't have a clue on this one. meat from the sow and glede are prohibited. A glede is?? There are dietary taboos that mean dog, cat and snake meat are forbidden. So nice dogs are acceptable when braised or boiled? /smartass
  • Sorry, I guess I put that badly. By all means, the Chinese ought to create the Nu Shu dictionary, record Nu Shu speech, etc. As an anthropological and linguistic artifact, it is valuable. What I was trying to say was that not every language can - or should! - be saved from a speaking point of view. This seems especially so with Nu Shu - it was already an inherently exclusive language, and served as a sexual-cultural dividing line. Those who speak it are self-marginalizing. But aside from that oddment, it's not a matter of civilized or not civilized, it's a matter of not using a screwdriver to pound nails - like it or not, modern life demands modern languages. Modern languages with large speakergroups are evolving languages - they easily adapt to changing times. Ancient languages tend to not be - which is to say, dying languages die for a reason, and that is that they cannot compete amongst other languages for utility. While the Yao women remained geographically remote, their language could flourish, since there was no other language to compete with it - but now? They've finally been given a hammer; should they continue to use the screwdriver, just because they always have? Languages, like cultures, are born, mature and die when their usefulness is at an end. A sense of historical perspective, so often lacking here in America, is I agree intrinsically valuable - but I can't help but think that artificially shoring up the walls around a marginal culture does nothing to preserve the history and actively prevents that culture from evolving in tandem with it's larger neighbors. Cultures are like creatures, and the most successful cultures are not the ones with discrete walls around them but the ones that are able to inculcate the best parts of other, less adaptable cultures as they take them in. All of which is to say: preserve it, record it, but don't try to live it, if it's time for it to go. Nu Shu, like Navajo, is not a useful tool anymore - condemning people to continue speaking it effectively walls them off far more efficiently than any reservation fence could hope to do.
  • But then, Fes, compare it to the almost-extinction of the Maori language in New Zealand. In the last five-ten years, Maori has become a compulsory school subject, there is a Maori-language TV channel and Maori language shows on the other channels (including the news, Te Karere, which has been around for as long as I can remember) that are not subtitled (it's divisiveness, but the other way). Previously, only elders spoke the language and young people either couldn't be bothered or wanted to be fully integrated into European culture -- excuse my vast generalisation here, there's more to it than that -- but now NZ is on the way to being an openly multicultural nation, where before European was the way to be. Likewise, you can see a relationship between resurgence of Maori language and culture, whereby without one the other would stagnate. By letting a spoken language fall by the wayside, you're guaranteed to lose certain aspects of the correlating culture. Navajo, also, may be less "useful" today but it is still spoken and the culture in its evolved form is still prevalent.
  • These languages, as all obscure languages, MUST be preserved if at all possible. It's the same with many of the Native American languages. As the tribes become smaller and smaller, it is increasingly difficult to pass down the stories (which are generally better told, with all the nuances, in the original language), the legends, wives-tales, etc... We have already lost so much by not paying attention to what is rapidly disappearing.
  • I wonder what sort of gender biased constructs there are in Nu Shu.
  • Fes: Usefulness, huh? Consider: for centuries, some Jews have been bi- or trilingual in an everyday language, together with Hebrew and Aramaic. For religious Jews, that in itself provided real utility - access to God is mediated through the sacred languages. (The sages chose the very syllables of Hebrew prayers for maximum efficacy in achieving divine states of mind, you know). From a more secular point of view, the skills and attitude to learning acquired incidentally also proved valuable in other fields that required intellectual exertion. As tracicle hinted above, Maori language is now providing utility to its speakers as a badge of identity and pride. I don't doubt that Navajo can function likewise, if it doesn't already. If you agree with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, then there may be real utility in being a speaker of any language that provides you with useful insights. Navajo, with its baked-in care for physical detail in verbs might provide utility in engineering or architecture or other fields that benefit from accurate mental modelling of the physical world, so that's a funny example to pick. Look at the use of Navajo by the code-talkers: clearly secret languages like Yao women's Nu Shu might be useful to their speakers too. Much knowledge of the natural world is only stored in minority languages. When the language dies, any untranslated, untranscribed knowledge dies with it. Artificially shoring up? If the people do it, it isn't artificial. What the hell would natural shoring up be? You're right that some attempts at revival fail, particularly when the people themselves perceive no use to them, Irish being a case in point. But who knows? Maybe some languages spoken now owe their survival to stubborn grandmas of the past.
  • Incidentally, I felt inspired to do some more googling. The situation of Erse (Irish Gaelic) is pretty dire, and the history of attempted revival (scroll down that article) sad, quixotic or infuriating, depending on your point of view. It's not just funny sounding tongues you never heard of that are dying out in this generation.
  • Lose a language, lose a universe. That said, I want some Nu Shus.
  • Fes: The idea that one must select a single language seems to be prevalent in cultures where there is a single dominant language. As tracicle points out, many Maori are routinely bilingual; likewise most continental Europeans. Suggest to an Indian she give up her village language and use only Hindi and she'll probably lugh at the stupidity of the idea. (And Maori leaders were the proponents, in the 1930s of the position you're advocating. Maori now consider it to have been a disasterous mistake).
  • Certainly, there is merit to the arguments each of you has made. I just can't help but wonder what tacit benefit speaking Maori, for example, gives to the Maori, other than to say "We are different from you, and here is how we mark it so." Are we as a species so arid of spirit that our badges of identity and pride are the things that divide us, rather than those things that unite us? I know the answer is yes, we are exactly that arid of spirit, to our eternal detriment. But I would agree as to the overall utility of speaking several languages, as opposed to one. Would that I was polyglot enought to do so - my Spanish is limited to "Dos cervezas, por favor," my French even less, Italian is as content-free and numbingly pleasant as Dimeola to my ear, and my German, which of all I could claim the most fluency, is stilted, broken, and as decrepit as an abandoned building from lack of use. And yet, I would counter - do not the Nu Shu, the Maori, the Irish suffer similarly, or worse? When they speak only their own language, they are trapped, while my English, if parochial, is at least the first language of millions. As to the question of loss of history: I agree, there is that. And yet, hundreds of thousands of people die every day, each a culture of one, each crammed to bursting with the memories, tales and history of an entire lifetime. When I was a reporter, one of the few things my publisher told me that I took away from the garrett was "Everyone - EVERY ONE - has at least one epic story to tell, and they each want desperately to tell it." So much is lost, that I must pause in our decisions of which to attempt to save - which, of all the history that evaporates daily, is sufficient to save? In an abbatoir of memory, how does one choose which precious few to reclaim from oblivion?
  • Um... Fes, do you speak any other language than English? You see, speaking another language opens up certain concepts which other languages don't contain. For instance, there is no term for "privacy" in Chinese - the closest is a term which loosely means "oneself". Whereas in English, there are no terms for certain Chinese concepts. You may think that it's just alot of cultural baggage or whatever, but to some, it's a whole way of life. Besides, people die every day, you're right. So should we halt medical advances and divert the money to saving starving children? Why bother with curing cancer - we're all dead in a hundred years anyway, right? It's a rather pessimistic and nihilistic road to take. I find my bilingualism a connecting, not dividing factor. I speak to my English-speaking friends of Chinese culture, and my Chinese-speaking friends of English matters. I translate brochures and pamphlets for a tea-house which specialises in Chinese tea. I learn every day, a little more of both ends of the bridge, and a little more of myself. I don't know how you choose which precious few, but for me I choose Mandarin and Teochew. Let the next person choose theirs. Instead of telling them it's a futile effort, maybe give them a clap on the back for making that choice. It may not make a difference to the universe, or history, or the world. But it makes a difference to that person, to his family, to his culture, even if it's just for a while, and just for a little bit. But we're all here only a little while and a little bit anyway. Why not?
  • You may think that it's just alot of cultural baggage or whatever, but to some, it's a whole way of life. I think you misunderstand me. I agreed that multilingualism is more useful than monolingualism. My points was - what if you're only language is Maori? How do you connect with the greater world? And if you *purposefully* marginalize yourself lingustically by saying, we here are *only* going to speak Maori? That's putting up a wall around your culture. Besides, people die every day, you're right. So should we halt medical advances and divert the money to saving starving children? Why bother with curing cancer - we're all dead in a hundred years anyway, right? It's a rather pessimistic and nihilistic road to take. Absolutely not what I was saying. I'm saying we can only save a few, because it's simply impossible to save them all. How do we choose? What makes the Nu Shu's culture and memory more worthy of saving than, say, the last of a family of German immigrants to West Virginia, or the scion of a shipping family in Marseilles? The house is burning, and we've got time for one trip in to grab some valuables - what do you grab? My point was that I don't think we ought to necessarily grab whatever happens to be closest to the fire, we ougth to instead be trying to put gather up as much as possible.
  • I doubt that anyone would advocate learning only one language in this day and age. Multilingualism has become - and is becoming more of - a necessity. I think one factor is the level of uniqueness of the language, perhaps. German immigrants probably still speak German, or perhaps a pidgin of German and the native tongue. It may not have developed concepts and terms entirely unique to itself that would be hard or impossible to translate into another language. But the Nu Shu language is different. It has developed by itself for a long time, enough so that one cannot piece the language back together again with terms from other languages, as you might with a pidgin. The fact that it is possibly one of the oldest languages in the world is probably another factor; linguists may find it useful to learn of how far related languages may have evolved, for instance. Just speaking off the top of my head right now; too tired to really dredge up research about languages right now.
  • amendment: perhaps "anyone" might be a bit strong; I think "most people" would not advocate monolingualism. There may be a few fringe extremists in certain cultures who may refuse to be 'assimilated' into dominant cultures.
  • Everyone regrets a loss of cultural diversity, but it is true that differences of language are a formidable barrier between people (and cultures), too. Would civilisation be better off if Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, and all the rest, had written in Welsh and Irish? I suppose we'll never know for certain, but I don't think the answer is obviously yes. That Sapir-Whorf stuff about languages providing different maps of reality is a bit out of favour these days, isn't it? After all, French has no single word for 'cheap' - they have to muck about with 'moins cher' or 'bon marche' and similar periphrases. But you don't think French people have any difficulty with the concept of cheapness, surely?
  • I think there's a kernel of truth to the map of reality bit (just because it's out of favour doesn't mean it's entirely invalid). For instance, Chinese has a term for the wife of your father's brother's son, while in English, one would just say "my cousin's wife". The wife of your mother's brother's son is also, "my cousin's wife", but in Chinese it's another term entirely. The same conversation in English and Chinese using these terms would be subtly different. Not earth-shattering, but different nonetheless. I would not say that differences of language is as formidable a barrier as say, religion is. People wilfully misunderstanding each other in the same language cause more trouble than two people trying to understand each other with different languages. as for cheapness: Perhaps the French know the concept of "a good price", and also the concept of "inferior". But they may not have one word combines these two concepts together? The word "cheap" contains several connotations that the French paraphrases cannot imitate?
  • Well, maybe a small kernel. Somebody (?) defined poetry as 'what gets lost in translation', and I can see what they meant...
  • First off, let me remind everyone that Nüshu is a script, not a language; it's used to write the same language the men speak. I did a post on it, and you should read this critique of the news stories. When they speak only their own language, they are trapped, But there are hardly any monolingual speakers of those languages. The users of Nüshu all speak Chinese as well, the Maori and Irish speak English. The question is whether they should become monolingual speakers of the majority language. Would that be a good thing? Would civilisation be better off if Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, and all the rest, had written in Welsh and Irish? Meaningless question. But Welsh and Irish might be better off. That's why Ngugi wa Thiong'o decided to give up writing in English (which he did superbly) and stick to his native Gikuyu. I'm not taking a position either way, just providing some context.
  • Well if that question is meaningless, languagehat, I rather think the question of whether it's a good thing for languages to survive or not must be meaningless too - or what's your criterion? Ngugi wa Thiong'o may well be a great writer, but if he sticks to Gikuyu, most of us are going to miss out on him. I don't think, as I said in the first place, that this is obviously the best possible outcome.
  • But Plegmund, if it were to encourage even one or two people out of the entire world to learn the language in order to read his work in its original form, it would be worthwhile. There are people who learn German to read Goethe, after all -- although I concede that there are more practical reasons that make German language worth knowing -- or people who learn their native American language in order to hear the oral traditions told in their appropriate tongue. Fes, I don't think anyone is saying the Nu Shu speakers should not learn more widespread languages, or that anyone should speak only a minority language. That would be completely impractical and would, as you say, only cut that group off completely from the rest of the world. But as a secondary, or even a spoken-at-home language, it should be learned or retained so as not to be lost in the throes of universalism.
  • It's a great thing to learn other languages and literatures - but I don't see why 2 people reading a genius in Gikuyu is necessarily better than (who knows) 2,000 or 2 million people reading him in English.

    If it were clearly a question of enabling or empowering people to continue with Nu Shu, I think we'd all agree - but how is it going to be 'retained' in practice? Is the Chinese government going to regulate it (the way they 'regulate' Tibetan Buddhism), or are a selection of women going to be paid to keep it up as an attraction for academic Western tourists? Should a script which was meant to be a secret escape from repression (as I understand it) now be turned into something imposed on Yao women by the predominantly Han and male authorities? Of course no-one is saying anything like that, but you see what I mean.

    I hope I don't seem dogmatic - I only mean to raise some necessary doubts.
  • Basically, Fes, it is inevitable that these languages and histories will be lost. Even with our efforts to record them. However, in holding on to them as long as possible and gleaning what we can, while we can, we will reap the rewards, whatever those may be. It would be impossible to say what those rewards are but I think history continues to prove that it is a worthwhile effort. In a sense, I see your point, maybe your a futurist. Recognizing the inevitable loss and seeing it as a futile effort, not seeing the benefits of that effort.
  • Oy. I now see that Nu Shu is not a language, but a writing system. But this just adds fuel to the "utility" argument. If you follow the last link, the author believes that it is an easy system to master (presumably compared to the orthodox Chinese system) and that it has potential for allowing modern Yao women to achieve literact more easily. Plegmund, I think you're very right to be concerned about what the authorities might turn this into.