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A Jewish Ethnographer Pursues Linguistic Diversity in China

by Ross Perlin

“There are things than cannot ever occur with any precision. They are too big and too magnificent to be contained in mere facts. They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them. And they quickly withdraw, fearing to lose their integrity in the frailty of realization. . . .”
—Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

The author with his Trung language assistant and friend Mvng Jisong.

In July, 1912, one hundred years ago, the Yiddish writer S. An-sky (born Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport) embarked upon the first of his momentous “ethnographic expeditions” across the Pale of Settlement. Never before had Jewish life in Eastern Europe appeared under the microscope in such living color — a culture recorded on the eve of its disappearance. A century later, on the other side of the world, I attempted to carry on what I consider a significant yet little-noticed Jewish intellectual tradition, the yidishkayt of documenting disappearance, of fighting for cosmopolitanism and multilingualism, of championing the distinctive languages and cultures of the planet.

Whatever the latest headline is from China — the biggest dam or the most ridiculous knock-off, exploited workers or courageous dissidents, capitalist excess or communist repression — there is one thing you can usually be sure of: Everyone in the story will be ethnic Chinese. With the partial exception of Tibetans and Uighurs, China’s minority peoples remain invisible to the world. One hundred million strong, they occupy two-thirds of China’s landmass and speak over two hundred distinct, mostly endangered and unwritten languages.

Linguistic diversity typically clings to islands and mountains, beyond the reach of states and empires. It is most wondrous and abundant in places such as Papua New Guinea, West Africa, the Pacific Northwest, Siberia, the Amazon basin, and the Himalayas. Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, part of the Himalayan “language hot spot,” contains over one hundred little-known languages in an area only slightly larger than Germany.

 

The Trung live in one of China’s poorest counties, where Yunnan borders Burma and Tibet. Here the tropical rainforests of southeast Asia meet the soaring peaks of the Eastern Himalayas. Swift, unnavigable rivers run through valleys over six thousand feet high, which are draped in bamboo and rhododendrons and terraced for small agricultural plots whenever possible. Fewer than seven thousand people speak the language, which is unwritten, virtually unstudied, and almost unknown beyond the Trung. Isolated and largely autonomous, the community has traditionally relied on hunting, gathering, and subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture. Until recently, famine still stalked these tiny villages from time to time. There were no towns and effectively no social classes.

In 1999, the government completed the first-ever road (unpaved), less than seventy miles across the mountains and into the valley, a construction feat that took over a decade (the road is still too treacherous to navigate in winter). Recent, modest openings have brought mixed blessings, improving the standard of living but damaging the Trung language and culture as much as the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution ever did. Traditional animist beliefs are giving way either to an indigenous Christian evangelism (coming across the border from Burma) or to the spirit of Party-led economic development carried out by local officials. Chinese-speaking outsiders are entering the region in greater numbers, bringing a cash economy and an education system grounded in Chinese language, culture, and history, not to mention Party doctrine.

The Trung language reflects the tribal world of upland Southeast Asia as it has existed for some five thousand years. The language has precise and intricate terminologies for the local landscape (waktu is the word for the confluence of a tributary and its parent river, for example) as well as for hunting, fishing, and local flora that still lack names in scientific Latin. Now young people who move away from the valley or have a non-Trung parent are losing the language, or have never learned it to begin with; others simply use it in fewer contexts, omit difficult grammar, or never pick up whole segments of traditional vocabulary. (What linguists call “verbal art” — the cultural complex of folktales, song lyrics, word play, humor, riddles, rhetoric, and so on — is usually the first thing to go.) Where Trung was once the principal language of everyday life, standard Chinese is now increasingly used in education, government, and religious ritual. Interactions with outsiders occur in the distinctive Chinese dialect of the southwest, and  transactions are often carried out in Lisu, a more widely-spoken minority language in the region.

 

Together with three educated members of the community, I have launched a Trung-Chinese-English dictionary project, now nearing completion. It will be the first-ever book in the Trung language, using a writing system based on the Latin alphabet but adapted for Trung. Through hours of elicitation work with patient elders, I built up a picture of the Trung sound system, the language’s use of tones, its parts of speech, its morphology and syntax — as comprehensive a portrait of the language as possible.

Aside from vital study sessions with my Trung consultants, most of my time over the course of more than three years was spent simply living, eating, observing, playing, listening, and talking with people. I made the rounds of daily life with them: farming, fishing, visiting friends and relatives, even watching Chinese TV together or going to a makeshift village “disco” — just the daily dust of who we are. Over time, the few remaining storytellers began to share creation myths, ghost stories, and oral histories. Among the people I worked with were a devoutly Christian tuk-tuk (rickshaw) driver who is now one of fewer than a hundred speakers of Anung, his language, from the next valley over from the Trung; a young musician torn between pursuing the Trung musical tradition and transforming himself into a good young Party member; and an old woman who has trouble communicating with her own assimilating family and is haunted by the suicide of her shaman husband during the days of the Cultural Revolution.

When I returned periodically to Kunming, the provincial capital three days’ journey away, I entered another China altogether. Starbucks and Apple were making inroads among the city’s newly-minted yuppies. By government fiat, a massive international airport, a seven-line subway system, and an instant skyline were all in the making. The trickle of Westerners was becoming a steady stream — studying Chinese, teaching English, doing business or doing good, even setting up a Chabad house. (In rural areas such as the Trung valley, I was invariably the first Jew people had ever encountered — if they had heard of Jews, called youtairen in Chinese, at all.) The preoccupations of Kunming’s citizens echoed those of Beijing, or Hong Kong, or, indeed, New York or London: fashion, technology, commerce, global pop culture. The Trung were known, if they registered at all, only as a distant, primitive tribe whose women had once tattooed their faces and who now lived in abject poverty.

 

A genizah is a house of treasures, a last resting place for the written word — whether an anonymous street-corner dumpster or an irreplaceable, accidental archive, as in the Cairo genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue, where ten centuries of Jewish life have moldered and endured in over two hundred thousand precious fragments. My own genizah, holding three years of my work on Trung, Anung, and another related language, consists of three external hard drives (a terabyte in total), each one sheathed in an orange sleeve and weighing less than a pound.

Mandated by the sages of the Talmud, the genizah testifies to an abiding Jewish impulse to honor the primacy of the word; to let writing decay naturally, apart from the other detritus of time; to document and collect our experiences and disappearances, however fitfully. It symbolizes a Jewish tradition of preserving and paying attention to language and culture.

In the 19th century, at least among Ashkenazi Jews, secular learning overcame centuries of relative introversion and unleashed a sweeping curiosity about the umes ha-oylem (the peoples of the world). The result was extraordinary: instead of becoming rabbis and Talmudists, the new gaonim brought an infusion of Jewish scholarly and artistic energy into the arts and sciences, particularly the new and expanding fields of anthropology and linguistics.

One of the pivotal, founding figures of these new disciplines was Franz Boas, a German-Jewish immigrant to New York. Boas demolished the notion of “race” as a valid scientific category, instead championing culture as a nuanced, dynamic, and highly context-specific area of study. He trained many of the 20th century’s greatest anthropologists, including the Africanist Melville Herskovits and the linguist Edward Sapir, a pioneering scholar of Native American diversity who was equally at home in Chinook and his native Yiddish. From 1897 to 1902, Boas directed the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, a tremendous joint undertaking of Russian, American, and Canadian scholars that investigated the diverse peoples and cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait. His Russian counterparts included Vladimir Iochelson, an expert on the Tungus, the Yakuts, and the Yukaghirs, and Vladimir Tan-Bogoraz, best known for his work on the Chukchi. Along with Lev Sternberg (famous for his studies of the Nivkhs, the Oroks, and the Ainu), this extraordinary group of accidental, radical ethnographers were, in fact, Jewish-born political prisoners of the Tsar, revolutionaries who made the most of Siberian exile.

The An-sky expeditions were directly inspired by the work of these early ethnographers and embodied a powerful synthesis: the ancient Jewish sensibility of the genizah combined with a modern methodology applied, at last, to yidishkayt, to undzere mentshn (our people). (Arguably, a similar “ethnic turn” would occur in the 1960s and ’70s, when Jewish musicians and ethnomusicologists came to klezmer music while exploring their passion for blues and American folk music. Something similar may also now be happening with food, as a small group of Jewish chefs, schooled in the celebrated cuisines of America and Europe, finally turn their attention to the neglected cooking of their grandparents.)

“So many impressions — it can’t be described,” wrote An-sky to his childhood friend, Khayim Zhitlovsky. “It’s as though I’m climbing up a tall mountain from which I can see a greater and greater area. I’m starting to see the folk, the nation, with flesh-and-blood eyes.” According to his biographer Gabriella Safran, An-sky conceived of folklore collection as “a path to personal and communal redemption,” a forward-looking, even revolutionary act that “would provide the seeds and spirit of a specifically Jewish revival.” An-sky’s famous play The Dybbuk, based on Jewish folklore, exemplifies this vision of folklore driving new artistic creation, which in turn became the basis of a modern identity.

 

Sponsored by the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society in St. Petersburg, An-sky and his small team ultimately collected eighteen hundred folktales and legends, fifteen hundred folk songs and Purim plays, seven hundred sacred objects, and five hundred manuscripts and books; they also recorded a thousand song melodies and niggunim, five hundred wax cylinders’ worth of music and song, and countless proverbs and folk beliefs. Shlepping the latest equipment deep into the countryside, the researchers were often swarmed by the local Jewish communities, intensely curious about their work and eager to help or participate. By all accounts, they were engaged, conscientious ethnographers, meeting with local leaders, participating in communal life, exhaustively seeking out the best informants. The two thousand photographs taken by An-sky’s teenage nephew Solomon Yudovin (many of them recently re-published in the recent Photographing the Jewish Nation) unflinchingly capture shtetl (town) and derfl (small village) life before a now almost forgotten catastrophe: the pogroms, expulsions, and murders of the First World War.

In Vilna in the 1920s, YIVO’s Ethnographic Commission, later renamed the Folklore Commission, proved itself a worthy successor to the An-sky expeditions by managing a network of zamlers (collectors) and zamler clubs to ensure that new material was constantly being gathered, published, analyzed, and exhibited. In a unique act of mourning and remembrance, the hundreds of yiskor (memorial) books compiled after the Holocaust formed another massive documentary monument to Ashkenazi yidishkayt — detailed, emotional records of individual Jewish communities across the Pale, records of a vanished world. The work has continued, slowly, with the post-war Yiddish Atlas Project, inside Florida retirement homes, in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, at Purim plays in the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn. One notable contemporary incarnation of the zamler spirit is Dov-Ber Kerler and Jeffrey Veidlinger’s AHEYM (The Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories), a fieldwork project following directly in the footsteps of An-sky to record the last cultural remnants of Jewish Eastern Europe. What the National Yiddish Book Center has done for Yiddish could, in fact, be done for endangered Jewish languages, and endangered languages worldwide.

Yet just as we are beginning to understand and appreciate it, the deep Jewish diversity of the diaspora is coming to an end. Until recently, multilingualism was an essential part of the fabric of Jewish life. We now face a future in which most Jews will be monolingual or bilingual, speaking only Hebrew and/or English, with smaller numbers carrying on in Spanish, French, and Russian. Although not an imminent existential threat, the collective loss of our cultural and linguistic heritage is a silent emergency, threatening to leave us with a Jewish identity that consists of little besides Orthodoxy, the state of Israel, and (just maybe) a certain tam (flavor), the faintest inflection of a former culture.

 

Various forms of Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic are severely endangered, as are Jewish Neo-Aramaic, Judeo-Tat (spoken by the “mountain Jews” of the eastern Caucasus), Krymchak (of the Crimean Jews) and the languages of the Berber Jews, the Bukharians, the Persian Jews, and the different Jewish groups of India, among others. Tragically, the tradition and corpus of documentation described above for Yiddish simply does not exist in the other Jewish diaspora languages, even once-mighty Ladino.

Such Jewish languages have both vast differences — radically divergent grammars and vocabularies from the Turkic, Semitic, Indo-European, Kartvelian, and other language families — and intriguing similarities in the ways they mediate local and Jewish identity, doikayt (here-ness) and yidishkayt. All are “fusion languages” of a kind, where abstract vocabulary, for instance, is more likely to stem from Hebrew-Aramaic roots. Today, Karaim is spoken by fewer than fifty elderly Karaite Jews in Lithuania, mostly in and around the ancient town of Trakai. In Azerbaijan and Daghestan, emigration is finishing the work the Soviets began, hollowing out a Tat-speaking culture that once boasted theater, literature, and journalism, but is now on life support. Political turmoil in Iraq, and Iraqi Jewish exile to Israel, have apparently broken the chain of transmission for the Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad and the Judeo-Aramaic of Zakho and Arbil; both face extinction in the coming decades. “Western Yiddish,” the language of Rashi and Eleazer of Worms, is already essentially gone, with a possible handful of speakers in Alsace. And the list goes on.

The Cairo Genizah itself bears witness to the richness and variety of Jewish multilingualism and cosmopolitanism, with Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Greek, Persian, Latin, Ladino, Yiddish, and Hebrew all represented there, and Samarkand, Kiev, Marseilles, Venice, and Aden just a few of the cities mentioned. A traditional genizah is limited to written documents in Hebrew, or at least in the holy alef-beys, but in practice there are few restrictions on the nature of the texts and the range of subjects that can be included. Scholars sifting through the Cairo Genizah — work that will likely go on for centuries — have identified contracts, commentaries, legal texts, scriptures, letters, and some of the world’s earliest banking and financial documents. Like spoken language and folklore, but unlike stone-carved monuments and chiseled dictates, a genizah evokes the daily grind, the world of ordinary people. With each painstakingly reconstructed fragment, it brings a dead world back to life.

 

A third of the world’s approximately seven thousand languages are expected to disappear within this century — a massive extinction of human cultures, which are everywhere buckling under the combined onslaught of nation-state policies, capitalist homogenization, and cultural modernity. Laws, education systems, technologies, and the labor market dictate an agonizing assimilation for minority groups to dominant national and supranational norms.

Languages have always come and gone, but this mass extinction is something new, pervasive yet invisible, and potentially irreversible. A language can decline precipitously within a few decades, as soon as a single generation of children ceases to learn it. A tiny 6 percent of the world’s population is now responsible for maintaining 94 percent of all languages — half of which are spoken by ten thousand people or less, lack a written form, and have gone virtually undocumented and unnoticed. As you read this, dozens of languages, particularly in North America and Australia, hang on the lips of just one or two elderly speakers, at which point they can hardly be said to exist at all. Speakers of endangered languages tend to be among the poorest and most socially, politically, and geographically marginalized citizens of their countries, although their multilingualism can usually put the best-educated first-worlders to shame.

Thus far, the world religion most welcoming of and concerned with linguistic diversity has been Protestant Christianity, born of an act of translation (Luther’s rendering of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles into German). Academics are making dogged progress, with a recent widely-reported boost from Google, but today, a group of Christian missionaries based in Texas are responsible for the world’s most extensive effort to document and preserve endangered languages.

Jews certainly face obstacles to universalizing our tradition of the genizah, to reviving our flagging concern for culture and language, and to stemming the loss of a diaspora diversity that has everywhere been uprooted and disturbed. Our ancient emphases on Hebrew as the holy language and on the written word as superior to the spoken hold us back. So does the bobe-mayse of Babel, which associates multilingualism with pride and sin. Still, in the spirit of Jewish universalism, we should dream today of modern genizahs without walls, high-tech treasuries of language and culture open to the written and the oral, the Jewish and the non-Jewish. We should be building genizahs rather than towers to the sky.

 

Ross Perlin is a writer and linguist who has been studying China for the past decade, most recently documenting endangered languages with the Himalayan Languages Project and serving as sometime Mekong Delta bureau chief for the Yiddish Forward (as creator of the “New York Jew in China” video series). He has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Guardian. His first book, Intern Nation, was published by Verso in 2011. A version of this article originally appeared in Jewish Quarterly, published in the United Kingdom.