The Trung people of Yunnan province in southwest China say they once had a written language “but a dog chewed up the dried animal skin on which it was recorded.” (“How to read the dictionary of an endangered language,” by Ross Perlin, Harper’s August 2013 pg. 70.) Ross Perlin is the assistant director of the Endangered Language Alliance who is working with others to give a written form to Trung speech.
As there is no Trung alphabet, the letters must be invented, followed by the spelling of the spoken word. But almost before the project begins, it is hampered by a culture clash, as China opens the province to extensive logging in its rush to progress. Scholars have to decide what old words are to be eliminated and what new ones to be included in a Trung dictionary. For example, Trung children are named according to their birth order. When Du is attached to a name, it signifies the 9th daughter. But China has limited Trung families to 3 children, which makes Du a word destined to become obsolete. Should it be added to the new dictionary or ignored? In addition, China is a communist country while Trung culture is Christian. New words to accommodate communist ideology have already cropped up in the language. Should these be included, too?
In sum, the problem for scholars is how to respect the ideology of one culture while providing a language broad enough to communicate with a second? Perlin describes the fluidity of the situation as difficult, like “a finger dipped in the flux of a language.” (Ibid pg. 71)
But isn’t that always the irony of the written word? A dictionary is a glimpse of how people communicate at a given moment in time. Eventually, these tomes have to be revised to accommodate change. Once committed to paper, a word may appear to be frozen in time, like the image from a camera, but unlike an image, words live and die. Just like people, they are affected by the ebb and flow of life.
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