Mosuo Language Project - Stage 1: Development
The first stage of the language project is, naturally, the development of a prototype written form. There was a great deal of discussion as to what form this new written language should take. There were a variety of options:
* Use a phonetic version, similar to the English alphabet. Advantages – facilitates outsiders learning the Mosuo language; and familiarizes Mosuo children with the alphabet, facilitating their ability to learn English. Disadvantages – it looks and feels “foreign”, has no direct link to Mosuo culture or history, and may face greater difficulty being officially adopted by the Chinese government.
* Use symbols similar to “Dongba” script, the written form used by the Naxi minority. Advantages – the Mosuo are fairly familiar with Dongba, and have used it in the past for trade and communication with the Naxi. Disadvantages – the Mosuo strongly dislike being categorized as part of the Naxi minority, and have expressed a strong desire not to use Dongba.
* Use a modified form of Tibetan script. Advantages – Being Tibetan Buddist, many Mosuo are at least somewhat familiar with Tibetan script, and it is perceived as more a part of their own culture. Disadvantages – can lead to confusion of identity between Mosuo and Tibetan.
* Use some form of Chinese writing. Advantages – the Chinese government would like it, and it could provide mutual reinforcement of both Chinese and Mosuo written languages. Disadvantages – every linguist we have spoken with have said that using Chinese characters for the Mosuo language would be extremely problematic, as Chinese is a syllabic language, but Mosuo is not. In addition, most Mosuo have stated they don't want a Chinese form.
* Adapt Daba symbols. Although the Mosuo have no written form of their language, their religion, Daba, does have a variety of religious symbols. These symbols do not represent an alphabet or language (it would be similar to they symbol of the cross, or the fish, or the dove, in Christianity). However, we could adapt these symbols to have each symbol represent one sound in the Mosuo language. Advantages – it provides a written form that is derived directly from the Mosuo culture, and is immediately recognizable to the Mosuo. It also encourages preservation of a unique part of their culture. Disadvantages – it means designing an entirely new written form, including having to develop Unicode versions for computer use.
Following the principles of our organization, this decision was not made by any non-Mosuo. Rather, we presented the list of possible options to the Mosuo, explaining the relative advantages and disadvantages of each choice. The overwhelmingly popular choice was to adapt Daba symbols as the written form. Therefore, this is the course we are pursuing.
In order to alleviate some of the potential problems in using Daba symbols, we will also be developing a phonetic version of the language. In Chinese, this is already done; as young children, Chinese students will learn Pinyin, an alphabetic form of their language. Then later, they will learn the more complicated Chinese characters. We plan to do something similar. This will have the particular advantage of facilitating outsiders in learning the Mosuo language.
Dr. Glen Irons, the Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Brock University in St. Catherines, Canada, will be spearheading this task, working closely with various Mosuo leaders. As there are several different dialects within the Mosuo language, we will begin with the Yongning dialect, as Yongning is generally considered by most Mosuo to be the center of their culture.