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Sone-Tu Chin Ritual Language Documentation Project

 

Language Sone-Tu Chin
Depositor Justin Watkins, Mai Ni Ni Aung
Affiliation SOAS, Department of Linguistics
Location Myanmar
Deposit ID 0129
Grant ID SG0146
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online

 

Summary of the deposit

Sone-Tu is a Southern Chin (Tibeto-Burman) language spoken by about 28,000 people in Rakhine (Arakan) State, Myanmar. During pre-colonial times, Ritual Sone-Tu was understood by the wider community and used in rituals and festivals. The arrival of Christian missionaries during colonial times caused widespread decline in ritual practices. The encroachment of the Rakhaing and Burmese languages on the Sone-Tu lexicon have meant that Ritual Sone-Tu is now completely untelligible to Sone-Tu speakers. Ritual Sone-Tu will disappear with the three surviving spirit mediums, who are all in their mid-70s and 80s.

The ritual language retains a rich Sumtu lexicon which in the spoken language has been replaced by Arkanese and Burmese loans. The rituals and performances in which the language is used include life events such as births, deaths and marriages, and other community occasions such as festivals and harvests.

This collection will contain documentation on Sone-Tu in the form of recordings and translations, taken with three spirit mediums.

 

Group represented

Three spirit mediums in Rakhine (Arakan) state, Myanmar.

 

Language information

Sone-Tu is a Southern Chin (Tibeto-Burman) language spoken by about 28,000 people in Rakhine (Arakan) State, Myanmar. During pre-colonial times, Ritual Sone-Tu was understood by the wider community and used in rituals and festivals. The arrival of Christian missionaries during colonial times caused widespread decline in ritual practices. The encroachment of the Rakhaing and Burmese languages on the Sone-Tu lexicon have meant that Ritual Sone-Tu is now completely untelligible to Sone-Tu speakers. Ritual Sone-Tu will disappear with the three surviving spirit mediums.

 

Special characteristics

Ritual Sone-Tu preserves much Sone-Tu Chin vocabulary which has been replaced in everyday Sone-Tu by vocabulary from Rakhine (Arakanese) and Burmese, the cultures into which Sone-Tu and many other Chin cultures are becoming assimilated. Ritual Sone-Tu was used in animist rituals and performances associated with live events (births, deaths, marriages) as well as festivals, harvests and other community occasions. It is the language of intricate clan greetings which identify clan origins, historical migration routes and traditional homelands. The oral history and cultural heritage of the
community are also preserved in Ritual Sone-Tu by the surviving mediums.

Although there are around 50 ethnic groups which identify themselves as ‘Chin’, the diversity and sub-grouping hierarchy is poorly understood, and much basic comparative linguistic research into Chin languages (the Kuki-Chin sub-branch of Tibeto-Burman) remains to be done. Chin languages have elaborate tone systems with complex sandhi patterns. There is a system of verb-stem alternations which may yield up information about some of the earliest tonal splits in Sino-Tibetan.

As a result of the Burmese military regime’s attempt to discourage the promotion of minority ethnic identities and assimilate minority ethnic groups into the wider Burmese and Rakhine Buddhist culture, the rate of transmission of Chin languages to new generations has slumped. Many Chin in large regions of Burma are no longer familiar with Chin history or traditions and have become assimilated into Rakhine or Burmese society.

 

Deposit history

The co-depositor Mai Ni Ni Aung has direct links with community. She is a native Sone-Tu speaker and grew up in a Sone-Tu village in the Minbya township. She has established, and currently runs, Sone-Tu cultural preservation projects focusing on weaving, traditional crafts and oral traditions within the Sone-tu community. She has many close contacts with the Sone-Tu living in the area and has direct access to the surviving spirit mediums. As a Burmese national, she enjoys access to areas which are generally restricted to foreigners. She has experience in documentation of Sone-Tu oral traditions project.

The training in transcription and translation provided by Watkins transferred linguistic skills to Mai Ni Ni Aung and the two technical assistants, Kyi Min Wai and Tay Zar Lin, enabling them to write down their native language (Sone-Tu) in a consistent and systematic way. This knowledge in turn can be passed on to those community members who are already involved in literacy projects.

The researchers/depositors hope that the language consultants taking part in the project will benefit from participating by being encouraged to refresh their seldom-accessed knowledge of Ritual Sone-Tu. Their understanding of its relationship with everyday Sone-Tu may increase, as will the awareness of non-Burmese, non-Rakhine vocabulary in the everyday Sone-Tu language. The wider community will receive a DVD of the project, which the depositors hope will engender a pride in cultural identity and linguistic heritage among them.

 

Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Watkins, Justin & Aung, Mai Ni Ni. 2015. Sone-Tu Chin Ritual Language Documentation Project. London: SOAS University of London, Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: http://hdl.handle.net/2196/00-0000-0000-000E-D522-1. Accessed on [insert date here].

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