Saturday, 22 October 2011

Last of the Manchus

In The last of the Manchus: Et tu Manchu,The Economist reports on the decline of the Manchu language from "National Language of a vast empire" to near extinction in just a century, putting a human face on the decline in the form of Ms Zhao, one of the only two fluent speakers of Manchu in her village.  The decline turns out not to be so rapid, as 100 years ago, it wasn't as widely spoken as the opening line implies.  However, the report does raise some important points:

  1. Opression can cause language loss:
    • As the "language of the oppressors", the decline was accelerated by the revolution in China, when "Hundreds if not thousands of Manchu civilians" were "were massacred during the revolution by vengeful Han troops".  At the same time, many Manchu would have stopped speaking the language to avoid punishment.
  2. Language death can lead to a loss of history, even in a literate society: 
    • "2m out of 10m Qing documents in the country’s collection are written in Manchu."
  3. Reporting on speaker numbers is difficult, the article states that Ms Zhao is one of the last two fluent speakers in her village.
    • According to the article, " In 1979 there were 50 fluent speakers left"
    • Ethnologue reports that there were 60 speakers in 1999,
    • UNESCO Atlas gives a "compromise figure" of 10, with no date on that statistic.
  4. Language revitalisation projects can be too late:
    • "About six years ago Sanjiazi set up the country’s first Manchu school. But Ms Zhao does not think this will make much difference. The Manchu teachers, she says, do not understand her Manchu"

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