Languishing Languages

Ben Block

Libu Lakhi ignored his parents. He paid no attention to his classmates. None of them understood why the 18-year old student would leave his village to study something as useless as the Tibetan dialect Namuyi Khatho.

He knew it would not lead to a well-paying, secure job like his parents wanted for him, but he was drawn to studying the language that he could neither speak, read, nor write. “Why did I want to study Tibetan?” Lakhi recently asked himself. “I wanted to study Tibetan because I am Tibetan.”

The Namuyi people live in villages throughout the western Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture of China’s Sichuan province. Linguists estimate that 5,000 people speak Namuyi Khatho, mostly older generations. The dialect is a telling way to differentiate them from their Tibetan neighbors, in addition to variations in their Buddhist practices, clothing, and agriculture. Many of these cultural emblems are changing: Tractors are replacing plows, and automobile drives to city restaurants are replacing long festive marches during wedding ceremonies. The Sichuan Chinese dialect and the Nuosu language of the Yi ethnic group are replacing Namuyi Khatho.