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«A Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Georgetown University in partial fulfillment of the ...»

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A Dissertation

submitted to the Faculty of the

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

of Georgetown University

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the

degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

in Linguistics


Jermay J. Reynolds, M.A.

Washington, DC

March 12, 2012

Copyright 2012 by Jermay J. Reynolds All Rights Reserved ii



Jermay J. Reynolds, M.A.

Thesis Advisors: Natalie Schilling, Ph.D. & Robert J. Podesva, Ph.D.


This dissertation examines variation in the realization of the final bilabial nasal (m) among speakers of Amdo Tibetan farmer dialect. The bilabial nasal (m) in words like lam ‘road’, for example, neutralizes with the alveolar nasal /n/ in syllable final positions and thus becomes len. The merged variant [n] is typically described as an innovative dialect feature of farmer dialect resulting from language contact with Chinese and other languages of the area. Using sociolinguistic interview data from 60 speakers of a single (transitional mountain) farmer village in Qinghai Province in Western China, balanced in terms of sex and age and stratified by literacy, this dissertation quantitatively explores linguistic and social factors conditioning the use of the variable.

The overall production pattern associated with merging is indicative of a sound change in progress, with younger speakers leading older speakers. This is perhaps the first report of a sound change in progress in a Tibetan speech community. Moreover, it finds that merging interacts with age, sex and literacy in a number of complex ways.

While merging is led by female speakers in the earlier stages of sound change, sex- iii based variation disappears among younger speakers, among whom literacy status is the primary social conditioning factor, with the illiterate speakers favoring the merged variant [n].

By drawing on ethnographic insight, it is shown that the originally female-led change towards the non-merged variant [n] is best explained by local marriage practices and the traditional socioeconomic roles played by older speakers. On the other hand, the disfavoring of the merged variant [n] by more literate younger speakers suggests a revitalization of this non-merged variant. Furthermore, examination of the local linguistic ideologies and production patterns of younger speakers suggests that the increased use of the non-merged variant [m] is socially motivated. Many of the more educated speakers are taking a stance against merging, as it indexes encroachment of the Chinese language.

–  –  –

I am deeply grateful for the generous support that I have received from a number of amazing people throughout the dissertating process. Dr. Robert Podesva’s mentorship and guidance over the years has been a tremendously help in enabling me to grow academically. His continued insights and feedback throughout the writing process have been invaluable. I thank him for his generous support and critical mind. In addition to her invaluable feedback and supervision, Dr. Natalie Schilling’s patience, understanding, enthusiasm and passion have made this writing process enjoyable. I thank Dr. Schilling for her flexibility and generosity – you are an inspiration.

I am also thankful for Dr. Anna Marie Trester’s involvement as I neared the end of the dissertation process. Apart from her invaluable insights and feedback, Dr.

Trester’s compassion and understanding have made all the difference in the final months. My sincere thank you also goes to Dr. Michael Lempert for his support during the earlier stages of this project. I am also extremely grateful for the support of my friend Deborah Peterson over the years. I am indebted not only to her relentless editorial support with this dissertation but also for her great friendship.

I also want to thank many of my Georgetown colleagues and friends for their feedback and support: Amelia Tseng, Patrick Callier, Ashley Fidler, Rebecca Rubin Damari, Cala Zubair, Anastasia Nylund, Sinae Lee, Jinsok Lee and Kerstin Sondermann. In addition, I would like to acknowledge Dr. William Hale, Dr. Keith

–  –  –

support and kindness over the years.

In addition, I would like to thank all of the Spearhead people who have allowed me to record their speech. I am especially indebted to my brother and to all of my immediate including my parents and distant family members in Amdo who over the course of graduate studies have given me so much. And finally, I would like to thank my partner Shannon (and the little ones), whose persistent encouragement, sacrifice and love, have made this journey a more pleasant experience all along.



  Chapter 1   Introduction

1.1   Introduction

1.2   Introduction to Tibetan

1.3   Sociocultural dimensions of Tibetan language in China.................. 10   1.4   Amdo Tibetan and variable of interest

1.5   Why this study?

1.6   Organization of the dissertation

Chapter 2   Theoretical approaches

2.1   Introduction

2.2   Language change in Labovian sociolinguistics

2.3   Indexical values and social meaning

2.4   Ethnographic approach

Chapter 3   Language variation in local context

3.1   Introduction

3.2   Introduction to Spearhead

3.3   Local dialect variation and the linguistic variable

3.4   Marriage practice in the village

3.5   Traditional gender-specific local labor practices

3.6   Child rearing practices

3.7   Rising literacy level in the village

3.8   New acts of identity

3.9   Summary

Chapter 4   Data and methods

4.1   Introduction

4.2   Conducting the sociolinguistic interviews

4.3   Participants

4.4   The linguistic variable

4.5   Coding procedure

vii 4.6   Linguistic and social factors considered

4.7   Statistical analysis of the data

4.8   Summary

Chapter 5   Results and analysis

5.1   Introduction

5.2   Overall production patterns

5.3   Interaction between speaker’s sex, age and literacy

5.4   Summary of production patterns in the community

5.5   Explaining the sex based variation

5.6   Explaining the literacy based variation

5.7   Language change, gender and local context

5.8   Summary

Chapter 6   Indexical values and social meaning

6. 1   Introduction

6. 2   Traditional linguistic ideologies

6. 3   Newer language ideologies

6. 4   Differing indexical values

6. 5   Social meaning of the resurgence of [m]

6. 6   (Un)Gendered linguistic variation in times of uncertainty............. 168   6. 7   Summary

Chapter 7   Conclusion



Figure 1 “Closing ceremony for the 14th National Mandarin Promotion Week, September, 2011 – Lhasa”

Figure 2 “Speak Mandarin, write standard character, and be a civil person!”............... 13   Figure 3 “Mandarin Chinese is the language of our campus”

Figure 4 “Equality of ethnic groups. Freedom of Language”

Figure 5 “Please pledge to speak a pure father tongue!”

Figure 6 Conceptualization of local dialects by geographic location and socioeconomic background

Figure 7 Speakers by gender and age

Figure 8 Speakers by gender and occupation

Figure 9 Speakers by their birthplace and dialect

Figure 10 Speakers by literacy and gender

Figure 11 Merged variant [n] and preceding environment

Figure 12 Merged variant [n] and speaker’s age (R square = 0.34)

Figure 13 Apparent time distribution of the merged variant [n]

Figure 14 Linear relationship between illiterate female speakers and age

Figure 15 Linear relationship between age of illiterate male speakers and use of merged variant

Figure 16 Linear relationship between age of literate male speakers and use of merged variant [n]

Figure 17 Literate female speakers and their use of the merged variant [n]................ 101   Figure 18 Interaction between merged variant [n] and sex-literacy factor group........ 103   Figure 19 Literacy and sex among the older group

Figure 20 Sex effect among the older speakers (factor weights)

Figure 21 Number of speakers by literacy and sex among the younger group............ 110   Figure 22 Effect of literacy among younger speakers (factor weights)

Figure 23 Use of the merged variant [n] by younger literate speakers and older men. 114   Figure 24 Birth place of all married men and women in the village


Table 1 Variability in coda (m) in Amdo Tibetan

Table 2 Variability in coda (m) realization by preceding vowels

Table 3 Linguistic constraints considered

Table 4 Social factors considered

Table 5 Best model generated by Rbrul

Table 6 Social and linguistic factors among the older speakers

Table 7 Social and linguistic factors among the younger speakers

LIST OF MAPS Map 1 Tibetan dialect areas in China

Map 2 Approximate areas where Amdo Tibetans live in China

Map 3 Approximate location of Spearhead village

–  –  –

One famous Tibetan proverb says, ‘Every valley has its dialect and every lama has his religion1’, and another variation of the same proverb says, ‘Every valley has a river and every village has a dialect2’. Both reflect the same phenomenon - the complexity of linguistic variation in Tibetan areas. While there has been a number of studies describing phonological features of various dialects (Sun 2003; Janhunen & Kalsang Norbu3 2000), dialectal variations within a single village, to my knowledge, have not been studied in any Tibetan area. This dissertation uses a quantitative variationist approach to investigate language variation and change associated with the bilabial nasal coda (m) within a Tibetan farming village in Northern Amdo Tibet of contemporary China. The linguistic variable (m) in words like ‘gram ‘side’ can be realized as a merged variant [n] or can retain its original non-merged form [m]. The merged variant [n] is a widespread innovative feature of farmer dialect shared by many dialects in Northern Amdo Tibetan areas. The non-merged form [m] is a feature 1 !ང་པ་རེ་ལ་(ད་རེ། "་མ་རེ་ལ་ཆོས་རེ། 2 !ང་པ་རེ་ལ་(་རེ། !ེ་པ་རེ་ལ་'ད་རེ། 3 Many Tibetans have one name. To respect the original spelling choice of the Tibetan writers cited in this dissertation, I am using their names in hanyu pinyin if the original works appeared entirely in Chinese. If the original work is in Tibetan, I use the Wylie transliteration system developed by Turrell Wylie (1959). The names of Tibetans writing in English are given as per their own renderings.

1 typically found in more conservative Tibetan dialects such as nomad dialect and the written Tibetan language. This dissertation examines complex relationship between the internal and external factors associated with the linguistic variable in production and explores the social motivation of the maintenance of the non-merged variant [m] among younger educated speakers.

This chapter is organized in the following way: In section 1.2, I provide a very brief introduction to the Tibetan language and some relevant Tibetan linguistic ideologies. Section1.3 provides the relevant sociocultural dimensions of Tibetan in contemporary China. In section 1.4, I give a linguistic overview of Amdo Tibetan by exploring some of the general linguistic features associated with Amdo Tibetan dialects and identify the final nasal coda (m) as a linguistic variable of interest. In section 1.5, I discuss why an in-depth analysis of this variable is important not only in terms of Tibetan linguistics but also within a larger sociolinguistics. Finally, I present an overview of the remainder of the dissertation in section 1.6.

1.2 Introduction to Tibetan Tibetan belongs to the Bodish branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family.

Tibeto-Burman, along with the Sinitic languages, constitutes the super Sino-Tibetan language family, which is comparable in size and diversity to the Indo-European language family. Languages within the Tibeto-Burman family exhibit a great deal of typological diversity which is partially due to areal influences from Chinese on one

–  –  –

subgroup are tonal and monosyllabic without affixational morphology, while other languages like those of the Kiranti group of Eastern Nepal are marginally tonal or atonal with complex morphology. Most languages within this family tend to be verb final (SOV) (Matisoff 2003). Of roughly 250 languages in the Tibeto-Burman family, 9 languages have over one million speakers while the majority of languages in this group have less than 10,000 speakers (Matisoff 2003: 3). Many of these less spoken languages are considered endangered.

Tibetan is spoken in a large area, comparable in size to Western Europe. In the north, the area extends to the northern part of Gansu and Qinghai Provinces in western China. It stretches as far as parts of Sichuan Province in the east and extends to the Baltistan of Pakistan in the West. The area includes the southern slopes of the Himalayas, with Bhutan, Sikkim in India, parts of Mustang and Dolpo, and Solukhumbu of Nepal, and parts of Mount Everest inhabited by the Sherpas of Nepal (Tournadre & Sangda Dorje 2003: 25). This area encompasses in whole or in part, a number of countries including China, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Burma.

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