A law aimed at preserving minority culture in Yunnan has led to the creation of a facility developed solely for the recording and transcription of the province's diverse languages. The project, overseen by faculty at Yuxi Normal University, is tasked specifically with establishing archives of the most endangered of Yunnan's languages and is the first of its kind in southwest China.
Professor Bai Bibo (白碧波), who heads the effort, has said gathering records of minority languages with fewer than 500 fluent speakers has been given precedence. Yunnan is home to 25 officially recognized minorities. However, such categories often encompass smaller groups who identify themselves as culturally distinct from their designated ethnicity.
The goal of the project is to compile audio and video recordings of people speaking their native languages and then transcribing the samples into Mandarin and pinyin. Once this is accomplished, linguists working at the university translate everything into the international phonetic alphabet to make the documentation more easily accessible to linguists in other countries.
Researchers in Yuxi encourage participants to tell folk stories, riddles or sing in their native languages while they are being filmed. Linguists then collaborate with native speakers who are fluent in Mandarin to ensure translations are correct.
One of the the project's first recordings was that of the A'nong language (阿侬语). Considered part of the Tibeto-Burman language family, it is only spoken in a small area in the Nu River valley near Fugong by roughly 400 people.
Bai estimates languages such as this may only exist for one or two generations before they die out completely. As another example he cited Buxing (布兴语), which is spoken by fewer than 200 people in two villages in Mengla County. It is quickly being replaced in daily use by the more commonly spoken Dai language, as well as Mandarin.
In addition to collecting spoken records, Yuxi Normal University is cooperating with international language preservation institutes. One of the reasons behind these collaborations is to compare language samples taken recently with those collected in the past. Researches hope their analyses will help identify which languages are in the most urgent need of being recorded.
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