UO linguist receives award to document disappearing Sino-Tibetan languages

Scott DeLancey

It is estimated that at least half of the 6,000 – 7,000 languages currently used throughout the world will die by the end of this century. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), every three months somewhere in the world a language loses its last remaining speaker. Since 2005, the Documenting Endangered Languages program, supported by the NSF and the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been awarding grants to support researchers in their work to record, document and archive endangered languages.

Through this program, UO linguistics professor Scott DeLancey recently received an NSF award of more than $300,000 for his project, “Documenting the languages of Manipur: Clues to the prehistory of Sino-Tibetan languages.” DeLancey will document the Northeast India language of Monsang, one of two dozen Sino-Tibetan languages of the Indian state of Manipur, most with less than 10,000 speakers.

"Language is a source of invaluable cognitive, historical and environmental information," noted NSF Director France Córdova in the NSF press release. "Most of what is known about human communication and cognition is based on less than 10 percent of the world's 7,000 languages. We must do our best to document living endangered languages and their associated cultural and scientific information before they disappear."

DeLancey and postdoctoral researcher Linda Konnerth will produce audio and video documentation of Monsang that they will then analyze in order to create a grammatical description of the language. Comparing the Monsang data with other related languages in the region will help to build an accurate picture of the development of Kuki-Chin, the language subgroup to which Monsang belongs.

It has recently been discovered  that Monsang and its related languages preserve ancient elements from the ancestral Proto-Sino-Tibetan language, the language from which Tibetan, Burmese and Chinese have descended. A better understanding of Monsang and its related languages will contribute greatly to our understanding of the origins of the Sino-Tibetan languages.

“The history of a people is reflected in their language,” says DeLancey. “Languages of empires and large nations, like English or Chinese, get smoothed out and simplified.”

According to DeLancey, the languages of small groups often preserve the most archaic linguistic features. Monsang, with about 2,500 speakers, and Mandarin, with a billion, are very distant relatives. Monsang preserves grammar that disappeared in Chinese four thousand years ago, when it became the language of an empire.

DeLancey’s work will be done in collaboration with the Monsang Art and Culture Association, a local Manipur language preservation organization, and Manipur University. The data will be archived and made freely accessible from the Endangered Languages Archive at the University of London.