Wang Dehe, Taking Documentation Further
Wang’s story is inspirational, as he grew from a passionate native speaker and an interested language consultant, to an independent fieldworker and researcher, who puts his heart and soul in the study, preservation, and promotion of his native language.
Wang Dehe (his Chinese name) was born as Njjimar Deho (his name in Ersu) in a small Ersu village in Southwest China. He has always been fascinated by writing, probably because Ersu — an undocumented and endangered Tibeto-Burman language — is unwritten. It has become a life-long dream of Wang to find a way for his native language to acquire a written form. After a career of teaching physics in secondary school, Wang started studying the traditional pictographic writing system used by Ersu ritual priests. Working with those priests he soon became an expert on the Ersu pictographic script. As he started attending conferences and publishing articles in linguistic journals, Wang came in contact with linguists working on the documentation and description of lesser-known Tibeto-Burman languages of the Chinese Southwest. This sparked his interest in linguistic fieldwork and language documentation. When I met Wang Dehe in 2010, I was working on the Lizu language, which is closely related to Ersu. I became interested in learning more about Ersu and started working with Wang as a language consultant. I soon discovered that, even though Wang is not professionally trained in linguistics, he has a remarkable insight in his native language, and great dedication to its study and promotion. As a team we worked on a phonetic/phonological sketch of his native Ersu variety, and on that basis we created a Romanization system for Ersu. Once his dream of having a writing system for Ersu had become a reality, Wang enthusiastically started training members of the Ersu community in the use of our newly created Romanization system. In the past four years, he has organized no fewer than twelve self-sponsored workshops in the use of the Ersu Romanization system for Ersu community members in his native Ganluo County, Sichuan Province, China. He is now planning even more workshops, which are free of charge for all participants!
Wang Dehe and I also collaborated in a four-year ELDP Major Documentation Project “Ersu and Xumi: Comparative and Cross-Varietal Documentation of Highly Endangered Languages of South-West China” (2013-2017). Wang did an excellent job working on Ersu, by compiling an impressive corpus of 177 traditional Ersu stories and song lyrics (transcribed in the Ersu Romanization system). He also participated in the documentation of other languages in the project. This includes (a) documentation work on the moribund Duoxu language of Mianning County, spoken by no more than a handful of elderly speakers, (b) the first-ever large-scale sociolinguistic surveys of the Ersu and Xumi languages, and (c) the first-ever survey of the dialects of the Lizu language. Upon the completion of the Ersu and Xumi ELDP documentation project, Wang successfully applied for an independent ELDP project, which starts in December of this year and aims to produce a comprehensive illustrated dictionary of Ersu with audio files.
In addition to his dedicated work on language documentation, Wang Dehe has a genuine talent to spark interest among people in his work, and a contagious enthusiasm for the cause of language preservation and promotion. Through regular Chinese-language postings on his blog, he raises awareness of language endangerment and loss, and successfully promotes his linguistic documentation work, thereby increasing awareness and enhancing the visibility and prestige of Ersu in China and abroad.
In summary, Wang Dehe is a native Ersu linguist, ethnographer, and historian, who makes important contributions to the documentation, preservation, and analysis of Ersu. He has exceptional insight into Ersu and great enthusiasm for the language and culture of his native Ersu community.
We congratulate Wang Dehe and wish him many successful projects in the years to come!
by Katia Chrikova