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Documenting Endangered Languages:
The case for the Tai language family


All languages embody unique linguistic and cultural knowledge, much of which remains to be explored and documented. Regrettably, thousands of indigenous languages are at risk of disappearing before scholars will be able to capture and preserve them for future generations. Southeast Asia, in particular, is experiencing rapid loss of languages, notably in the Tai language family. These languages represent ties to cultural identity and perceptions across national borders for millions of people.

This project will produce a detailed grammatical description, including basic descriptive treatments of phonology, syntax, discourse organization, sociolinguistic aspects, stylistic devices, vocabulary, and poetic organization and devices of five endangered Tai languages. In the second phase, rare audio recordings and field notes from fourteen languages and dialects in this group will be digitized. These data were collected, recorded, and transcribed by the late William J. Gedney in the 1960s and 1970s in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. Refugees from Myanmar (Burma), China, and northern Vietnam served as informants. The outcome will be a series of publications of the grammars in monograph form, along with archival-quality digital versions of the audio recordings, grammars, texts, translations, and images of Gedney’s own hand-written texts to be published on CD-ROM and the world wide web for easy public access.

This project adds important new dimensions toward a reconstruction of the history and evolution of the Tai language family, while helping to illuminate the relationship of Tai languages to other languages of southeastern and eastern Asia. It will also assist in unifying the many hypotheses regarding the language groupings in this area. Further, it will provide much needed sources of data for the study of Tai syntax and discourse, as well as many research problems in general comparative linguistics.

The archived data will constitute not only an important resource for future linguistic research on the Tai languages, but also provide a sound model for field workers interested in documenting endangered languages to follow. The data will also serve as an important resource for introductory and specialized linguistic courses, for researchers interested in the ethnic and cultural identity of the speakers of the languages, and for language teachers and teacher trainers. For speakers of the languages, the texts will provide valuable information concerning their ethnic identity, culture, and history.

Research Team
Thomas J. Hudak, Principal Investigator

Source of Funding
National Science Foundation

Contact: Thomas J. Hudak