The Greater Burma Zone - a transitional zone of languages and peoples

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This project is a cross-disciplinary study of what I call the ‘Greater Burma Zone’, combining linguistics with anthropological and historical studies. The Greater Burma Zone forms something of a loose transitional area between the South and Southeast Asian linguistic areas, as historically-situated linguistic evidence suggests. Present day Burma (Myanmar) consists of an extensive plain stretching along the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers in the north to the Irrawaddy delta and Salween plain in the south and southeast. This lowland area is surrounded by mountains on three sides and the Bay of Bengal in the south. The area has been home to different peoples, states and kingdoms, mostly unstable and with shifting boundaries, since at least the early centuries AD. Political power in general spread much faster and more thoroughly in the plains than in the less accessible retreat zones in mountainous and densely forested regions, a phenomenon that recently received some attention in anthropological and historical studies. From what we know in other parts of the world this dichotomy is expected also to leave signals also in linguistic structures, signals that may be be leveled or disappear in the course of increasing communication and transport facilities between the areas. Over 100 languages belonging to six different language families (Sino-Tibetan, Austroasiatic, Tai-Kadai, as well as smaller communities of Hmong-Mien, Indo-European, and Austronesian) are spoken in the area. In a few of these there are written documents going back over a thousand years, while in most cases only recent, if any, material is available. Initial investigations have shown that the languages of the zone can be read as ‘palimpsests’: for example, many of the varieties of Tai languages, while reflecting their eastern Mainland Southeast Asian origins, have come to take on more firmly Greater Burma features as speakers have moved west. Khamti (Tai) has a ‘genetic’ typological profile written further east, over which has been written a set of features acquired through contact over many centuries with surrounding languages in north and northeast Burma. Karenic languages (Tibeto-Burman), on the other hand, have restructured their syntax to the more typical Southeast Asian verb-medial type, but still retain a number of features usually associated with the verb-final Tibeto-Burman languages.

This project takes a fundamentally diachronic approach to the investigation of the language convergence, determining the social and political processes over the centuries that have brought speakers of languages into and across the region, and at other times have forced them out, leading to the present distribution of languages and linguistic features. This project will investigate a representative selection of languages of the Greater Burma Zone to establish an areal typological profile, looking at the distribution of features covering all linguistic domains, from phonetics-phonology to pragmatics and the lexicon. Burmese as the national language naturally occupies an important position in the linguistic landscape of the area, which is marked by wide-spread bi- and multi-lingualism, in most cases asymmetrical, leading to different contact situations. The extent and kind of these influences in small-scale contact scenarios can give important insight in establishing the linguistic landscape of the Greater Burma Zone. The results also feed back into anthropological and historical studies of the area, a field of research becoming ever more important, and now possible, with the recent political,and ensuing social and cultural, changes in Burma.

The basic questions to be answered are ‘what linguistic features are found where in the area, and why are they found where they are’. To achieve this goal, the project will make use of different sources, including published language material such as grammatical descriptions, texts, and inscriptions, which will be complemented by original material to be collected in punctual fieldwork. The analysis will be done by application of methodological tools from general linguistics, especially areal and contact linguistics and linguistic typology, and history, combining the two fields to achieve viable results.