A couple of years ago, in this post, I linked to a NY Times story about an “isolated village in northeastern China” with eighteen residents, “all over 80 years old, who, according to Chinese linguists and historians, are the last native speakers of Manchu”; now Ian Johnson at the Wall Street Journal has “In China, the Forgotten Manchu Seek to Rekindle Their Glory,” about Hasutai, who “along with a band of like-minded young people in half a dozen Chinese cities” is trying to reconnect with his Manchu heritage by gathering materials and running classes. He’s heading to the far west of China to try to solve this problem:
Indeed, with virtually no native speakers left, it isn’t always clear how to speak the words. In the Qing dynasty, a textbook had been developed for Chinese wanting to learn their rulers’ languages, with Chinese characters to suggest how to pronounce Manchu letters. That helped, as did a system of transcribing Manchu script into Roman letters devised by European missionaries and academics. But even today, Manchus can’t agree on how to pronounce one of the vowels, let alone how to make the language flow naturally.
Hasutai decided the answer lay in a remote corner of China: Qapqal, a county on the Kazakh border. In the 18th century, one of China’s most famous emperors, Qianlong, sent members of the Xibe tribe to the newly conquered steppes of Central Asia. Close Manchu allies, the Xibe spoke what essentially was a dialect of Manchu. Isolated from the currents that wiped out Manchu speakers in their heartland, the Xibe kept the language in this remote region.
Thanks for the heads-up, MV!
Also, I’d like to extend hearty congratulations and a warm thank-you to Mark Woods, whose wood s lot is nine years old today. Keep up the good work, and thanks for all the hats!