Thursday, March 23, 2017  |  11:30a  |  Moore Hall 258

manoasealDynamics of Language Contact in China: Ethnolinguistic Diversity and Variation in Yunnan

Katie Gao, Linguistics

Chair: Katie Drager

The study of language contact epitomizes the dynamics of language as a system of human communication. The competing linguistic forces at work when speakers of different language varieties come into contact can be narrowed down to two basic concepts––convergence and divergence. Looking at linguistic areas using a macro approach, languages in contact tend to show convergence across all structural levels through diffusion and borrowing, but nevertheless, linguistic diversity persists in regions of high interethnic language contact. Ethnicity often plays a significant role in constructing identity, therefore a speaker’s linguistic choices can reflect ethnic identity and intergroup relations. Because these processes occur in and as a result of complex societies, “studies of interethnic language contact must begin by understanding the context in which speakers in a community construct their own ethnicity, as well as the ideologies that affect how they view other groups” (Fought 2013: 395). Southwest China is a particularly interesting region for language contact research because high levels of ethnolinguistic diversity in remote areas perpetuates traditional interethnic contact relations while these same groups are also currently under social and economic pressure to assimilate to mainstream Chinese society.

This dissertation describes the social context of language contact in Yunnan Province’s Wuding County, an under-researched mountainous county with more than half of the population classified as non-Han ethnic minorities. Speakers of at least eight Ngwi varieties (Lolo-Burmese, Tibeto-Burman), two Hmong varieties, and one Tai variety are represented in villages across the county, although speaker numbers are diminishing due to widespread shift to Mandarin Chinese. This dissertation presents original ethnolinguistic maps of the distribution of ethnic minority villages in the county followed by two localized studies of interethnic contact scenarios in a Yi village area. A demographic survey of reported language proficiency in Miqie and Geipo households illustrates the role of access and geographic location in the rate of language shift to Mandarin; while the second study discusses the role of ethnic identity in persisting Miqie and Geipo language variation in intermarried households in the same village area. These studies highlight the dynamic social context in which language is used and changes for constructing identity and improving social mobility for speakers of languages facing endangerment in a rapidly changing society.