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American linguist Michael's life of language researching in Yunnan

By : InKunming | Published: 2014-September-19

Michael writes down his notes about Bai people's language on a notebook. [Photo/ Chen Yingying]

Michael (left in the picture) discussed with a linguist expert in an international linguistics conference. [Provided to InKunming]

[InKunming--Polls & Interviews]  About 100 years ago, American explorer Joseph Rock came to Yunnan for the first time and was deeply attracted by beautiful sceneries and friendly Naxi people when he arrived at Lijiang. From then on, he cannot help establishing a long and close relationship with Lijiang.

Around 100 years later, when Michael Opper casually read some lines of analyzing results about Naxi dialect written by Joseph Roch, he found similarities with Joseph. Firstly they are both from the U.S. Secondly, they both had plans to make investigation in Yunnan.

Michael, a linguistic expert who is reading his P.H.D degree in University of Michigan, began his research journey in Yunnan from the second half of 2013. At the first beginning, he planned to make research in Samei dialect, a minority language of Yi people in Yunnan. However, after knowing some real situations in the province, he decided to give up researching in Samei dialect since the language has almost lost in heritage.

However, by incident, one of Michael's teachers in Yunnan, Yang Liquan, who works in Yunnan University and accepted Michael's request for doing language research in Yunnan in 2013, suggested Michael to make research in Bai minority's dialect. Yang Liquan, as a person of Bai nationality, also can speak Bai dialect.

"Statistics showed that about 1.5 million people speak Bai dialect in Yunnan. However, only about 10 thousand people speak Samei dialect now. Population bases of the two languages are different. Big population base can benefit me more for field investigation." Michael Opper explained the reason why he changed his language investigation field from Samei dialect to Bai dialect.

Over the passed one year, Michael had been to Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture for two times, in where majority of Bai people have lived for a life time. “I have been to Shuanglang, Xizhou, Xiaguan, Dali Ancient Town in the prefecture. I also went to Tuanjie village, Shalang village in Kunming, where a small part of Bai people lived together with other nationalities. ” Michael said.

In order to acquire first-hand information fully, he needs to record Bai dialects of at least 50 Bai people who are in the age from 30 to 50 and live in various areas of Yunnan. According to Michael Opper, Bai people who live in different areas of Yunnan actually pronounce differently. In other words, he needs to go to different areas in Yunnan to record the Bai people's pronunciation of Bai dialect.

"As far as I know, Bai people who live in Jianchuan, Heqing counties of Dali prefecture speak the most authentic Bai dialect. Bai people from Fengyu(凤羽), Jinhua(金华), Jindun(金墩), Luobenzhuo(洛本卓) have many different accents, although all of them speak Bai dialect." Before investigating Bai language by fieldwork, Michael has read many Chinese books which analyze Bai dialect.

After recording Bai people's pronunciations in Bai dialect, Michael will differentiate their accents by a professional language analyzing software named Praat. And then, he will take notes on analyzing results as well as his own summarizing results.

"I will submit my research achievement in earlier time of 2016." Michael siad. Only after he finished his research report on Bai dialect, and got approval from his alma mater University of Michigan, Michael can successfully graduate from the university and get his P.H.D. degree.

At present, Michael is busy for contacting Bai people who would like to speak Bai dialect to him and help him to make records, and also keep reading a plenty of books, paper materials which are related to Bai language.

Because of Michael's persistence in investigation of Bai language, he not only gets familiar with Bai language now, but also knows a lot about Yunnan after staying in the province for over one year. "Special snacks such as Xizhou Baba (a kind of local pancake), Dali bean jelly, diary fans, I have tried them when I got there. I also took photos, scuh as women wearing Bai minority's costumes, ships berthing at Erhai Lake, traditional residential houses, etc."

"For the Bai language, Michael knows more knowledge than me." Ms. Li, a person of Bai nationality and speaks Bai dialect, marveled at Michael’s extensive knowledge. After talking with Michael for a few munites, she has witnessed and felt Micheal's ability in language knowledge.

Besides, Michael's teacher in Yunnan, Yang Liquan, also highly acknowledged Michael's abilities in language analyze and his precise and serious attitude in language research. "I often invite Michael to teach my master students in my classes. My students have learned the newest research trends in western countries from him, and also learned the way to use the language analyzing software Praat." Yang Liquan recommended.

According to Yang, in China, there are only 5 scholars who have issued their theses and are still researching Bai language. And in the world, only 5 scholars from France, America and other countries respectively are still making researches in Bai dialect. Michael is one of the very small circle which includes only 10 people doing research in Bai dialects.

"In current situation, I found that Bai dialect averagely contains 7 tones in pronunciation, owning quicker speaking speeds than Han language (Mandarin). The dialect contains some special sound scales like spiritus asper and assibilant." As a linguist who has learned Han language for about 10 years in America and done researches in various dialects in China, Michael shared his research thoughts with InKunming journalist.

In a knapsack which Michael picks with him all the time, some professional books such as Grammar Reference to Bai Dialect by Zhao Zhuang, General Rules on Bai Dialect's Songs Words and Poems, Research on Bai Dialect Which is Spoken in Shalang County of Xishan District in Kunming, etc. are contained. A laptop and a notebook are also carried at any time by Michael for writing down important thoughts on the Bai dialect which may flash across his brain.

However, making research on Bai dialect is just one of harvests Michael has acquired in Yunnan. He also made a lot of friends with Bai people. "Now, one of my best friends is a man who read my post on internet and called me through phone number I left on the post. He took me to Dali, the man's hometown, letting me know a lot about local customs and traditions, not only the Bai dialect." To Michael, one of his favorite alcohol is Heqing white spirit, which is produced in Dali and was recommended by Michael's best friend.

Now, Michael has totally accustomed to life in Kunming and Yunnan, and even feel pleased to live in this city. "In future, I may move to work in Yunnan if my parents are healthy and well in America. I like life here. I have no big obstacles to live in the city. As you know, Kunming is becoming more and more open and international now. I could find almost everything I want here." Michael also referred that there is a possibility for him to marry with a Chinese woman, for he loves the city, loves Yunnan very much.

Like American explorer Joseph Rock, who had been deeply infatuated with Lijiang, wrote in a letter to his friend: "I would rather die in crowds of flowers in Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang, but not lie on a bed in Hawaii's hospital." To Michael, he is also infatuated with miracles, nice people, beautiful sceneries in Yunnan province.

Although Michael lives in Kunming and Yunnan for merely one year, he thinks the land owns more interesting things , not only the languages, waiting for him to feel, explore and record.

Click here to view Chinese report.

(Editors: Cathy Chen, Tracy)

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