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Language Policy, Purity, and Protests in Mongol and Buryat Ethnic Space 
Christopher Atwood (University of Pennsylvania)
Uradyn E. Bulag (University of Cambridge)
Melissa Chakars (Saint Joseph's University)
Gegentuul Baioud (Uppsala University)
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Christopher Atwood (University of Pennsylvania)
Kathryn E. Graber (Indiana University Bloomington)
Language & Linguistics
Sunday 17 October, 9:15-10:45 (UTC-4)

Long Abstract

Language Policy, Purity, and Protests in Mongol and Buryat Ethnic Space

Late in the summer vacation of 2020, Chinese authorities announced plans to downgrade the role of Mongolian language in Inner Mongolia’s schools. What followed was a region-wide school strike, a government crackdown, several suicides by despairing ethnic Mongol teachers, parents, and officials, and an eventual declaration by China’s national assembly that the Mongolian-medium education that had existed as an option up to 2020 had in fact been “unconstitutional” all along.

This panel’s put this sea change in Chinese policy toward the Mongolian language and considers the broader context.

1. Melissa Chakars (St. Joseph University) “The Endangered Buryat Language: A Local and Global Phenomenon”:

UNESCO labels the Buryat language of Siberia as endangered, a world language that may soon disappear. This paper examines how different institutions, historical events, and cultural shifts allowed for language loss. While specific particularities make the Buryat language story unique, many of the reasons for the decline of the Buryat language are also similar to those of other diminishing minority languages. Indeed, the decline of Buryat language from the 1960s offers important parallels for the situation in Inner Mongolia today.

2. Gegentuul Bayaoud (Macquarie University) “Linguistic purism as resistance to colonization”:

As the Mongolian language is equated with ethnic survival in Inner Mongolia, the metadiscourse of Mongolian linguistic purism has become a vital tactic for enacting Mongolian identity and creating a counterspace against Chinese linguistic and cultural hegemony. This paper analyses: 1) the process of establishing iconized links between language, culture, land and race on the second order of indexicalities; 2) the orthographic representation of Mixed Mongolian and “pure” Mongolian in the Mongolian social media space Bainu. The study illuminates the interdiscursive processes of presuming and constructing linguistic, cultural and ethnic boundaries by subaltern groups in an assimilationist nation state.

3. Uradyn E. Bulag (Cambridge): “From Nationality Language to Mother Tongue: Changing Parameters of Language Politics in Inner Mongolia”

This paper explains how language became a singular issue between the Mongols and the state, and why the survival of the Mongols as an ethnic group in China is now perceived to depend on the Mongolian language alone. This paper discusses two concepts that the Mongols used during the protest to frame the Mongolian language: minzu yuyan (in Chinese) or ündestnii hel (in Mongolian), i.e. (minority) nationality language, and muyu (in Chinese) or eh hel (in Mongolian), meaning mother tongue. While the former activates a "rightful resistance" that is set in the language right enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, it proved less effective in a regime that rules by policy rather than law. The frame of mother tongue, on the other hand, does not invoke legal or constitutional rights but appeals to "basic" universal principles about what constitutes "humans" that transcend national and ethnic politics. As such, it is emotive, calling for an intense response, as manifest in the death of at least 11 parents and teachers who killed themselves for preserving their "mother tongue."

Kathryn Graber (Indiana University) will discuss the papers.

Accepted papers: