Featured Linguist: Picus Sizhi Ding

Picus Sizhi Ding

Featured Linguist: Picus Sizhi Ding

Picus Sizhi Ding


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Entering the field of linguistics in the early 1990s, I consider myself to be one of those growing up professionally together with the Linguist List. When I first learned of the List, which was precisely in the form of a mailing list, the kind of excitement I felt was about the same as I first discovered linguistics as a discipline.

Born in a Hokkien family in Rangoon at a time when overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia strongly upheld their ancestral language as part of their identity, I spent several years of my early life as a bilingual child in Hokkien and Burmese. Then my family moved to Macao and I grew up bilingually in Cantonese and Hokkien. The only foreign language taught in most schools of Macao in those days was English. I started to get interested in Mandarin around Grade 7, with exposure to its pronunciation mainly via pop songs such as those sung by Teresa Teng. In my final year of high school, Radio Macao launched a series of mini-programs for learning elementary Portuguese, I learned a little bit out of curiosity. In retrospect, there has always been an interest in languages in me. This explains my immediate decision on electing linguistics as my major when I discovered it on a long list of majors available in some universities in North America. For variegated reasons, I had moved and studied in the states, Canada and Australia, but my field of study remained intact. As a result, I have received all my three degrees in linguistics, each from a different country.

In my senior year I wrote a term paper on the Construction in Mandarin for a syntax course taught by Prof. Usha Lakshmanan at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. I continued to work on this topic for my M.A. thesis, but I felt that it was rather easy to do linguistics on a language one knew well. I began to develop the idea of describing a minority language for my doctoral study, regarding this as an effective means to train an all-round linguist. After I told Prof. Nancy Hedberg, my supervisor at Simon Fraser University, about this idea, she kindly lent me a copy of Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker by Prof. R. M. W. Dixon. Eventually, I went to Australian National University in 1994 with the goal of investigating an obscure language for my doctoral research. Aware of ANU’s focus on the Pacific region, I had kept the option of languages to study open. As it turned out, I was not expected to write a grammar for a Polynesian or Australian language; instead, I could find my own language for research.

Back in December of 1992, I borrowed three grammatical sketches written in Chinese from the Asian Library at University of British Columbia for my Christmas reading. One of these was 普米语简志 (A Brief Account of the Pumi Language), which impressed me the most among the three books. This was the first time I learned of this language and the Pumi people. I had done an analysis of the homorganic consonant clusters of Prinmi, and thus this Tibeto-Burman language was on top of my short list of languages to study.¹ The biggest problem, however, was that I didn’t know any Prinmi speakers and, in fact, I had never been to Yunnan. Luckily, I found a native of Kunming at ANU whose father was a professor at the then Yunnan Institute for Nationalities.

One of the most memorable experiences during my fieldwork was the New Year Eve of 1995. I was in a hurry to return to the Prinmi village from the county seat and I got on a van that was about to depart. After the van took an unexpected turn and continued running in a different direction, I found out from other passengers that the van was heading to a village unknown to me that a small number of Pumi lived there. With this information, I felt a bit released, as I could try to get help from the Pumi there. I went to a Pumi household which sat right on the ‘main’ street of the village. Using my rudimentary Prinmi, I tried to introduce myself with my Prinmi name. I was welcomed warmly by the master of the household. This had nothing to do with my Prinmi, but rather, he happened to be a younger brother of an old Pumi whom I knew well. What a coincidence! Another adventurous experience took place in early March of 2005. I trekked for more than 12 hours on the mountains with a Pumi priest whose home village was just across the Yunnan-Sichuan border in Muli, Sichuan. When the nightfall began, I saw the shade of a big animal jumping over a creek. I thought it was a leopard, but the priest told me it was a bear and that bears in this region were vegetarians just like pandas. After that he asked me to stay there, as it was getting dark, he would go to the village by himself and send someone to pick me up later. In the dark I could see some lighting ahead, so I walked slowly toward the village with my knees painful and my shoes all wet (the mountains were covered by snow). After an hour or so, I was picked up by the sons of the priest with a horse.

My fieldwork experiences in China are filled with frustrations, joy and, to a lesser extent, danger and luck. I was fortunate to have met Prof. David Bradley at La Trobe University just before my first field trip to Yunnan and a few months later in Kunming amid my fieldwork period. However, it is hard work that has contributed to my fieldwork achievement. These fieldwork experiences are a microcosm of my life in general. I feel glad that I have been able to follow my interests to conduct research on minority languages of China, which probably represents the least studied region with a high degree of linguistic diversity under-estimated. From descriptive linguistics to language documentation and conservation, China, especially south China (including Taiwan) has much to offer to field linguists.

¹ I use the direct transcription of autonym Prinmi, rather than Mandarin pinyin, to refer to the language.


Read the translation of Picus Ding letter in Chinese


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