Research tops 'new languages' chart

While global biodiversity may be shrinking at an alarming rate, linguists are recording a burgeoning number of world languages.

language-research-01 And this phenomenon - because of its political and social sensitivities - is of more than academic interest.

A new global listing just published in the US includes a staggering 30 languages ‘discovered’ in China by La Trobe University graduate researcher Dr Jamin Pelkey and La Trobe linguist, Associate Professor David Bradley.

Eighteen of these resulted from the work of Dr Pelkey and 12 from Dr Bradley’s.

The latest issue of the prestigious international journal 'Science' reports that of 83 ‘new’ language listings from 19 nations, Dr Pelkey’s entries are the most for any single country.

'Science' notes that the 18 new Phula languages described by Dr Pelkey have ‘acquired something of an official status internationally because they have been assigned identification codes by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)’.

‘Such language codes are used in software, digital archives, and library collections and are an official recognition that a speech variety meets ISO’s definition of a “language”’, the magazine says.

Dr Pelkey’s findings are based on work carried out from 2005 to 2006 in 41 mountain villages in Yunnan Province, Southwest China, part of a research project he began in 1998. The area has been home for non-Han ethnic groups for thousands of years.

In the 'Science' article, Dr Pelkey, who now works in Canada, says centuries of isolation have widened the gap between various language groups descended from the same parent tongue.

For example, the 500 speakers of Alo Phola can’t understand speakers of a sister language less than eight kilometres away.

He explains many Chinese languages are being described only now, partly because there has been a tradition of lumping ethnic groups together. This has masked the extent of diversity.

The 'Science' article notes that in the 1950s Yunnan’s population of two million was divided into 20 official groups, even though 212 different ethnic groups were known.

La Trobe University linguist Associate Professor David Bradley has worked in China since 1982 and supervised Dr Pelkey’s PhD studies.

He says for reasons to do with geography, history, and politics China is ‘one of the last places on earth where there are large numbers of unreported and undescribed languages’.
‘Until the 1980s it was forbidden to suggest that China had more than 55 languages’.

Dr Bradley suspects Yunnan alone may have more than 150 languages, and says Western and Chinese linguists are now surveying the region more thoroughly.

Chinese linguists ‘are still constrained by political realities as well as traditional macro-categories imposed by the Han Chinese majority on their minorities,’ Dr Bradley says.

Nevertheless, in recent times, Chinese researchers have become freer to identify new languages and doors have also been opened for more foreign researchers.

The 'Science' article reports that ‘for some communities, linguistic description and discovery is welcomed, but others are uncomfortable with losing traditional affiliations’.

Dr Bradley says that in Sichuan, speakers of some 25 languages of the officially recognised Tibetan ethnic group ‘strongly reject any claim that they’re anything but Tibetan, and don’t want distinct languages to be identified as such.’

● The list of new languages was published this month in 'Ethnologue: Languages of the World'.  The authoritative gazetteer lists 6,909 living languages from 156 countries.

The full text of the 'Science' article is available at:


Dr Jamin Pelkey

Dr David Bradley
Phone: 03 9479 2362