Workshop Report: Minority Languages of the Chinese Tibetosphere


Brief Report on the

Workshop on Minority Languages of the Chinese Tibetosphere

by Gerald Roche (post-doctoral fellow at the Hugo Valentin Centre, and convenor of the workshop)


On the 3rd and 4th of November, 2014, 17 participants from 8 countries, and a number of observers, joined the Workshop on Minority Languages of the Chinese Tibetosphere: Ancient Trends, Current Situation, and Future Prospects. The workshop was held at the Hugo Valentin Centre at Uppsala University in Sweden. Funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and the Forum for Advanced Studies in Arts, Language and Theology at Uppsala University, this workshop aimed to initiate research on a largely unexplored topic – the minority languages of the Chinese Tibetosphere.

What is the Chinese Tibetosphere and what are its minority languages? The Tibetosphere is a linguistic area covering all regions influenced by the Tibetic languages. It spreads across six countries: China, Burma, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan. The majority of the region lies within China – this is the Chinese Tibetosphere.

The minority languages of the Chinese Tibetosphere are the non-Tibetic languages of the region. My most recent estimate is that there are 48 such languages, and among those, 25 are spoken by people who are officially identified as Tibetans. The vast majority of these minority languages are endangered. Our workshop looked at why those languages are endangered, and what the prospects are for their future. To enrich our understanding of the predicament of these languages, we not only invited experts on the individual languages, but also in contemporary Tibetan society, Chinese language policy, and the endangered languages of Europe.

Regarding ancient trends among these minority languages, several themes emerged. First was the importance of migrations in creating linguistic diversity. For example, Matyas Balogh discussed the migrations that brought the Oirat language to AmdoWutun, Salar, and many other minority languages of the Chinese Tibetosphere owe their existence to similar journeys. Divergence of language varieties, based on social, political, economic, and topological boundaries has also contributed to the diversity. Hiroyuki Suzuki and Sonam Wangmo discussed diversity among Tibetic varieties due, in part, to spatial segregation between farmers and nomads. Meanwhile, Konchuk Gelek discussed the patterning of linguistic diversity along watersheds. Just as important as this divergence, however, has been convergence of language forms. Juha Janhunen, Erika Sandman, and Camille Simon all discussed convergences between Tibetic and non-Tibetic languages in Amdo, due to prolonged, intimate contact between the populations of the region.  Similar issues of linguistic contact and convergence have been important elsewhere in the Chinese Tibetosphere.

Urbanization, education, policy, and social attitudes emerged as key aspects of the current situation faced by Tibet’s minority languages. Caixiangduojie described the experience of minority language speakers in China’s Tibetan schools. Such languages are typically excluded from classrooms, and schools are often sites where minority language speakers encounter discrimination for the first time. Urbanization, meanwhile, has intensified contact between speakers of various languages and dialects, and, as pointed out by Joakim Enwall, since municipal-level administrative units cannot, under present policy, be considered minority autonomous units, urban environments typically promote linguistic assimilation. In addition to policy, social attitudes also play an important role in determining the fate of endangered languages. Both Tenzin Jinba, from Gyalrong, and Lhundrum, who speaks the endangered Ergong language, showed that linguistic minorities often encounter negative, or at best ambivalent, attitudes in broader Tibetan society. Meanwhile, Sandman and Simon both revealed that minority language speakers are often ambivalent about maintaining their own languages.

Given these ancient trends and current situation, what, then, are the future prospects for the minority languages of the Chinese Tibetosphere? The outlook is complex. One surprising trend that became apparent in the workshop is the emergence of new language forms, for example, Tibetan Sign Language, described by Theresia Hofer, or new standardized dialects in urban environments, as described by Konchuk Gelek for the case of Yushu, and Sonam Wangmo and Hiroyuki Suzuki in the case of Lhagang. Another surprise, discussed by Françoise Robin, is the revitalization of the Tibetan language, due to widespread grassroots language advocacy. Robin showed how, despite ongoing discourses about the ‘decline’ of the Tibetan language, recent developments have seen informal corpus planning, the spread of the language to a number of new domains, and increased visibility of Tibetan in the linguistic landscape. It remains to be seen what impact this revitalization will have for Tibet’s minority languages. For some of them, however, worrying trends are already firmly established. Balogh’s report on Henan Oirat, for example, clearly demonstrated that the prospects for the language’s continued survival are very slim. However, the fate of even critically endangered languages is not yet sealed. As Jon Todal’s presentation on the Saami languages concretely demonstrated, language shift can be reversed, the impacts of negative social attitudes and unfavorable policies can be overcome; revitalization is always a possibility.

We hope that this workshop is just the beginning of research on minority languages of the Chinese Tibetosphere. We are already planning a publication based on contributions from the workshop, and we also hope that further workshops will be possible in the near future, in order to investigate the urgent and unexamined issue of the sociolinguistic predicament of these languages.



Nicolas Sihlé

Nicolas Sihlé, a sociocultural anthropologist, is researcher at the Center for Himalayan Studies, a research unit of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) based in Villejuif (France). He specializes on Tibetan religion and society, and is the author of Rituels bouddhiques de pouvoir et de violence : La figure du tantriste tibétain [Buddhist rituals of power and violence : The figure of the Tibetan tantrist] (Brepols, 2013). His current work focuses on post-Mao socioreligious transitions in and around the famous communities of non-monastic specialists of tantric Buddhism in northeast Tibet (Amdo), and more generally on the comparative anthropology of Buddhism.

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