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Documentation of Pela and Language contact between Pela and Zaiwa in lexical and syntactic borrowings


Language Pela
Depositor Sophie Mu
Affiliation Student
Location China
Collection ID 0336
Grant ID IGS0191
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This project works with local communities to document and describe the definitely endangered Pela language and its contact with Zaiwa. The researcher is a native speaker of these two Tibeto-Burman languages spoken by the Chinese state-designated Jingpo minority in Yunnan, south-west China. Audio, video and photographic records will pay special attention to endangered genres such as religious ritual and folk stories. This data will be used to describe the influence of Zaiwa on Pela lexicon and syntax. Research materials will be documented in a PhD thesis and shared with local communities and authorities in Chinese and English open-access publications.


Group represented


The ‘New Socialist Rural China’ project was initiated by the Dehong government in 2007 and aimed to relocate minorities living in remote areas to more urbanised areas, where they can have better access to hospitals, schools and the job market. Before this project, the Pela people were cut off geographically from the surrounding Han Chinese cultural areas by high mountains. They were economically, culturally and linguistically isolated in a manner that enabled preservation of their language and culture with very little outside influence. The Pela language was the dominant language in family and social domains, and Mandarin Chinese was only used for trade and government relations.

Pela people now live in three villages in Dehong prefecture, in constant contact with speakers of other languages of the Jingpo minority. One group of Pela speakers were relocated from the mountains to a new peri-urban village, Yunqian, near the capital of Dehong prefecture in the valleys, and this state-initiated relocation has many implications for the development of the Pela language. The other two villages are in mountainous Shuangwopu Township and Wuchalu Township.

My MA dissertation showed conclusively that Pela people relocated to peri-urban Yunqian are increasingly choosing to use Mandarin Chinese in social as well as official domains. The dissertation focused on presenting the language shift situation in a Pela village, after it had been relocated to a new place, where it has more contact with other larger language communities such as Zaiwa, Dai and Han Chinese. The experience of Yunqian Pela speakers can be compared to that of Pela speakers in the yet-to-be-relocated villages in Shuangwopu and Wuchalu townships.


Language information

Pela, also known as Bola or Bolo, is a language spoken amongst the Pela community in southwest China. Ethnologue gives two different figures for the population of Pela speakers –1000 (Edmondson 2001) and 400 (Bradley 2000). Dai et al (2007) give the population of the Pela community as 500.

The Pela community is recognised politically as part of the state-designated Jingpo minority, which includes several culturally diverse groups speaking five Tibeto-Burman languages (Jingpo, Pela, Zaiwa, Lechi and Langsu). All these groups live on the mountainous border between China and Burma. Ethnically, Pela people consider their language and culture to be different from other groups. Pela was widely used in the community among all age groups until the 1950’s when the Chinese Government began promoting Mandarin Chinese to support ideologies of nationalism and of urbanisation. All members of the Pela community share one family name, Kong, and traditionally, the Pela people cannot marry anyone from within the Pela community. Therefore, only one parent in each family comes from the Pela community – and most non-Pela parents are Zaiwa speakers. Consequently, every family speaks at least two languages (the Pela children are requested to use Pela while the mothers speak their first languages and Pela), and Zaiwa is the most widespread second language. These exogamous practices of the Pela community have increased the influence of Zaiwa on Pela.

In the past, multilingualism was widely accepted amongst all the Jingpo minority communities, and there was no question that a larger linguistic community could endanger the language of a smaller one. However, in 2000 UNESCO classified Pela as a ‘definitely endangered language’. State-initiated urbanisation processes and state promotion of Mandarin Chinese have dramatically altered Pela’s future possibilities, and its use is restricted to fewer and fewer social domains.

As a purely oral language, without description, script or any other form of documentation, Pela is likely to disappear very quickly, taking with it a wealth of traditional and indigenous knowledge both religious and cultural that has survived for hundreds of years. Pela’s endangerment is aggravated by the fact that it does not enjoy state recognition and therefore does not benefit from any language preservation policies.


Special characteristics

Sophie Mu, the researcher and depositor of this collection, and her family are part of the disappearing multilingual system documented in this collection – they speak all the five languages of the Jingpo minority.


Collection contents

When completed, this collection will provide a rich data set that will be valuable for the Pela community, members of the Jingpo minority and researchers. The data set will illustrate the changing language varieties in Pela-speaking villages both before and after relocation to urban settings. The materials will be made up of video and audio recordings as well as photographs of daily spoken language, religious ceremonies, stories, festivals. In particular, the collection aims to provide

  • ten hours transcribed data drawn from free monolingual Pela conversations in small groups with predetermined topics, with the Shaman participating in the activity. The monolingual conversations often happen between men and their children and grandchildren and the conversation between the community members and the Shaman
  • five hours transcribed data drawn from semi-structured Pela conversations between Zaiwa wives and mothers and their Pela/Zaiwa bilingual husbands and children to see whether participants in such conversations use more Zaiwa lexical borrowings and syntactic structures than would be used when Zaiwa native speakers are not present
  • five hours transcribed data drawn from interviews based on semi-structured conversations with Zaiwa wives/mothers and their family following a questionnaire developed in Zaiwa and translated into Pela. The questionnaire will be used in the interviews with two different groups of Pela-speakers, with both groups asked to respond in Pela, in order to test whether Zaiwa lexical borrowings and syntactic structures are more widely used when questions are asked in Zaiwa
  • ten hours of edited video recordings (requested by the community) from raw recordings, including religious ceremonies (for the new planting season, harvest, home-building, weddings and funerals), festivals and storytelling (including folk stories and history of the Pela community)
  • five photo books (requested by the community), including animals, crops, herbal medicine, traditional costumes and landscapes. These books will be written in Pela transcriptions, Mandarin Chinese and English
  • annotations Mandarin Chinese and English consisting of the sequence of events and potential highlights (festivals, religious ceremonies), additional transcriptions and translations (small group and interviews), and word-for-word glosses and comments on linguistic aspects and cultural background (monologue)
  • cataloguing and descriptive, structural, technical and administrative metadata for all materials


Collection history

The materials in this collection were gathered between 2013 and 2016 during Sophie Mu’s doctoral research funded by an ELDP Individual Graduate Scholarship.


Other information

A copy of the archived data will be left in each of the three Pela villages and a copy will be given to the Department of Ethnic & Religious Affairs of Dehong, the governmental organisation that Sophie Mu has been working closely with for this project.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Mu, Sophie. 2017. Documentation of Pela and Language contact between Pela and Zaiwa in lexical and syntactic borrowings. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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