The impact of dialectal variation on documentation and conservation work

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2013-03-02
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Tribur, Zoe
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Tribur, Zoe
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The work of documenting and conserving endangered languages is complicated by the presence of multiple dialects. How (sometimes, if) to represent dialectal variation in language descriptions and education programs is an important question. The author examines these issues through the lens of field research on Amdo Tibetan since 2008. For researchers interested in exploring questions of typology and linguistic universals, documentation of dialects provides priceless data, but such problems as what features constitute a dialect and who speaks it complicate the task of identifying and collecting data, especially for dialects that are low prestige or are only spoken by diglossic speakers. The field researcher must be alert to the possible existence of such forms and be aware of the issues associated with them. For the conservationist, the linguist’s instinct is to argue that dialects should be preserved as part of the community’s heritage, as well as having value in their own right, but individuals struggling to reverse language shift may feel that the reduction of diversity is a necessary step toward ensuring the survival of the language for future generations. However, the selection of a “standard” form can be problematic, sometimes resulting in conflict within the community or, more seriously, causing some speakers to be excluded from conservation efforts altogether. It behooves conservationists to be aware of community attitudes toward diversity and to try to understand how diversity impacts language use within the community. Spoken by an estimated 1.5 million people, Amdo Tibetan does not fit the profile of a typical endangered language. However, AT’s status as a minority language and the increasing use of both spoken and written Chinese have already resulted in language shift in some areas, such as the Gro.tshang region of eastern Qinghai Province. The author has observed that efforts to reverse language shift in the area by encouraging literacy in Written Tibetan have been unsuccessful in part because literacy teachers don’t speak the Gro.tshang dialect. At the same time, negative attitudes toward the Gro.tshang dialect discourage some speakers from using Tibetan with people from other regions, contributing to the mistaken belief throughout Amdo that Gro.tshang Tibetans speak only Chinese. Part of the blame for this belief, however, also lies in the relatively high level of unintelligibility of Gro.tshang Tibetan with other AT dialects, and many language activists and Gro.tshang residents see dialect diversity as an obstacle to preserving Tibetan as the language of Gro.tshang Tibetans.
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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
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