New Book: Tone in Yongning Na, by Alexis Michaud: Open-access and the value of appendices

Tone in Yongning Na: Lexical tones and morphotonology, by
 Alexis Michaud.

Language Science Press, 2017. (Studies in Diversity Linguistics 13)

My main motivation for writing about Michaud’s study on the Na language doesn’t have anything to do with the book’s main achievement and contribution to the field. I know that that may sound rather strange, though after all I am not a linguist myself and would be a poor judge of what has been qualified by much more competent than me as “an outstanding contribution” (Konoshenko) and a “model for all future work on Tibeto-Burman morphotonology” (Matisoff). My interest is in fact twofold: first, as an anthropologist there is something for me to glean from this book; second, as a researcher who is curious about new models for publishing and disseminating knowledge freely, I believe the book deserves a great deal of publicity.

That anthropologists working in the mountainous region along the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau should be interested in what their colleagues do in linguistics should not come as a total surprise. As a matter of fact, anthropologists who end up doing fieldwork in places where the main spoken language is not taught at universities (or anywhere else, for that matter) can greatly benefit from the findings of linguistic research, which at least gives them some exposure to these languages before their long-term immersion within the communities concerned. The so-called Sino-Tibetan borderland, where the Na (Nazé, or Moso, Mosuo) are to be found is, in the eyes of many, an “ethnic corridor” that is of particular interest for its linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity. Various publications have explored the wealth of the region, especially in China where studies on the “Tibeto-Yi corridor” (a coinage by the eminent Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong in the early 1980s) have received strong institutional support.

In light of this, what is there for an anthropologist to glean from this new book which is first and foremost a description and analysis of the Na language’s tone system, and a contribution to the study of morphotonological systems that have been reported in this area of Sino-Tibetan borderlands? I invite you to go directly to page 487 (of the 613-page book) – it’s easy to navigate through the book as it’s available online as a PDF (click here to download); more on this below.

What you will find is “Appendix B: Historical and Ethnological Perspectives” (p. 487-516). This Appendix aims to shed light, as the author states, on “chains of societies” (chaînes de sociétés) that have shaped Na ethnicity. The expression is borrowed from Jean-Loup Amselle, a French anthropologist known for his contribution to forms of “métissages” (mestizo logics) and cultural dynamics (mostly in Africa). It aptly resonates with the approach that animates much of the recent research conducted on the “Tibeto-Yi corridor” or the “Sino-Tibetan borderland”, however one chooses to label the region. The Appendix is, to my knowledge, one of the best syntheses of literature that deals with the history of the Na and related groups, and with issues involving ethnic labeling and self-identification. That such a valuable piece of work should go into an appendix is both a great pity and an indication of the overall quality of the book and the author’s scholarly standard. Finding ways to describe ethnicity dynamics in this region is a daunting task for any anthropologist, and reviewing historical and ethnographic evidence and the particularly extensive literature is in itself a significant challenge. This is especially valid in the complex case of the Na. The author is to be applauded for his synthesis which should certainly become a key reference on the topic for historians and anthropologists alike.

Now, I turn to my second reason for taking an interest in this book: open-access and the dissemination of knowledge. Michaud’s volume is the thirteenth in the series “Studies in Diversity Linguistics” published by Language Science Press. This publisher, in cooperation with Knowledge Unlatched (link:, has developed this line of publishing that relies on an innovative crowdfunding business model, whereby many institutions internationally contribute funds to financing publications.

The 21 book series published by Language Science Press, as should be clear from its name, are all related to variegated aspects of language studies. But nowadays there are an increasing number of cross-disciplinary initiatives that contribute to making open-access work with or without the support of major institutions. They cannot be reviewed here but let’s highlight the fact that Himalayan studies are part of this dynamic, with the recent launch of The Highlander Books, or journals like Himalaya, the European Bulletin for Himalayan Research, or Asian Highlands Perspectives, all in open-access format. There is increasing evidence that choosing open-access is beneficial on multiple levels: for scholars from disadvantaged institutions or with no easy access to well-sourced libraries; for readers globally and for those outside of academia, providing they have access to a computer and to the Internet (the most significant limitation in rural areas: but imagine potentially accessing suitable formats on a smartphone); for publishers and institutions who are eager to transform a publishing landscape dominated by commercial presses; and last but not least for authors, because broad dissemination ensures an increased number of citations and therefore of opportunities to reach a much larger readership. (For a recent discussion, see this recent article.)

Besides its remarkable contribution to the field, Michaud’s book is an invitation to think beyond disciplinary boundaries and beyond established pathways to publishing.

Stéphane Gros

Stéphane Gros is a social anthropologist at the CNRS (France), Centre for Himalayan Studies. He is the author of a monograph on the Drung of Northwest Yunnan province in China (La Part manquante, 2012), and has written numerous articles and book chapters on issues of interethnic relations and representations of ethnic minorities, poverty and categorization, as well as rituals and cosmology. He has edited or co-edited four collections of relevance to ethnographic theory, Chinese studies, and area studies. For 2012-2016, he was the Principal Investigator for a collaborative project titled "Territories, Communities, and Exchanges in the Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands", funded by a ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grant. More recently, his personal research investigates aspects of kinship and social organization, conversion to Christianity, as well as heritage politics and environmental discourses. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

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