UCLA International Institute
Asia Institute

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide


Uniformity and Diversity in the Languages of Asia: Towards an Understanding of a Pan-Asiatic Cultural and Linguistic Paradigm

Shoichi Iwasaki, Professor, East Asian Languages & Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles

Project Description:

1. Introduction
Language is at the core of human interaction; without language, we do not come together or distinguish from one another in a uniquely human way. The proposed research is to probe this fundamentally important trait of human being to consider what we are, and in this particular case what Asians are.

Our main objectives are an identification of uniformity and diversity across the languages of Asia and an understanding of the underlying factors for them and the significance of linguistic consistency and differences for the speakers of these languages. The project is both comparative and interdisciplinary in nature, dealing with major linguistic areas of Asia and involving linguists and social scientists. The research is envisaged as the important first step in establishing a new paradigm of study on the cultural-linguistic heritage of the region. During the first year, five linguists work together to solidify our linguistic knowledge of several key Asian languages as a basis for further exploration. In the second year, anthropologists and other social scientists in addition to other linguists will be invited to broaden our perspective and to solidify the cultural underpinnings for the linguistic phenomena examined, with the aim toward the production of a volume that can help reshape scholarly conceptions of Asian languages and their speakers.

The research team consists of five collaborators, three UCLA faculty (EALC) and two colleagues in other institutions. Over the past twenty years, the five core collaborators have been in close contact in their individual research. However, this project will bring them together for the first time to address a common issue.

2. The project
Asia is defined in this project as the region which stretches from East Asia to both mainland and insular Southeast Asia. The region is not only geographically contiguous, but also seems to show some strong underlying uniformity, despite the obvious political, racial, cultural, and linguistic divides. The uniformity is seen in diverse forms, ranging from the recent popular and material culture (e.g., music and fashion) to the traditional philosophy and world view. However, nowhere is it more striking, albeit often subtle, than in the sphere of language structure and language use. This is even more remarkable in light of the great diversity found among these languages. Genetically, seven main language families are represented in the region: Japanese, Korean, Sinitic, Tai, Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Mien, and Austronesian. Typologically, there are agglutinative languages which use an array of affixes (e.g. Korean) and isolating languages which lack affixes (e.g. Vietnamese), as well as verb-final (e.g. Japanese), verb-initial (e.g. Tagalog), and verb medial (e.g. Thai) languages. Another linguistic diversity found in the region is the different writing traditions, including various forms of the Chinese writing system, Indic system, Roman alphabetic system, as well as locally devised systems.

Despite these linguistic diversities, there are some definite similarities that set the languages of this area apart from familiar European languages. By focusing on Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Malay/Indonesian, Balinese, and the Philippine languages, we attempt in this project to identify both underlying similarities and contrasts at the level of lexicon and morphology, syntax, and communication strategy with an eye toward the ultimate goal of determining what these similarities and differences mean in the larger socio-cultural as well as historical contexts in Asia.

At the level of lexicon and morphology, we find striking similarities in the use of common word roots in number of unrelated languages. Words meaning ‘heart/spirit,’ for example, contribute in making many compounds relating to human feelings and character. Of course, metaphorical use of such basic words for other expressions is a common practice in any language, and is not surprising at all in itself. In fact, English uses, for example, ‘heart’ for expressions related to emotions as well; ‘heartache,’ ‘heartbroken’, ‘heartthrob’ among a few others. The point, however, is that the use of ‘heart/spirit’ is much more extensive in the Asian languages. In Thai, the word for ‘heart’ is cay, and different verbs and adjectives appear with cay ‘heart’ to make many compounds related to human emotions and character, including cay dii (heart+good) ‘kind,’ cay dam (heart+black) ‘unkind,’ sia cay (lost+heart) ‘sad,’ and klum cay (gloomy+heart) ‘depressed.’ A book published by Christopher Moore in 1992 lists over three hundred different compound words and expressions that have cay ‘heart’ in them. Mandarin Chinese also uses the ‘heart’ word extensively: an xin (lit. peaceful+heart) ‘without consideration,’ fang xin (lit. put down+heart) ‘be at ease,’ xin bing (lit. heart+ill) ‘worry,’ xiao xin (small+heart) ‘careful, prudent,’ xin liang (heart+cool) ‘disappointed,’ xin han (heart+cold) ‘bitterly disappointed,’ duo xin (many+heart) ‘oversensitive’ and many more. Japanese borrowed some of the Chinese ‘heart words.’ Interestingly, the meanings are often slightly different from those in Modern Mandarin (the Japanese pronunciation for ‘heart’ is shin); shoo shin is from xiao xin above, but it means ‘timid (people),’ hoo shin is from fang xin above, but it means ‘absentminded,’ and an shin from an xin above, but it means ‘relieved.’ In addition Japanese uses another similar word ‘spirit’ pronounced as ki (also a Chinese loan), which appears in many phrasal expressions, including ki ga aru (lit. spirit exists) ‘be interested in’, ki ga fureru (lit. spirit touches (something)) ‘go crazy’, ki ga sumu (lit. spirit is exhausted) ‘be satisfied’, ki ga kikanai (lit. spirit is not working) ‘inconsiderate for others’ among many more.

Another example would be the word meaning ‘mother,’ which has been extended to mean ‘big, main, most’ in many Asian languages. An interesting example would be words for "the thumb" constructed with the word ‘mother’ in different Asian languages: ibu djari (lit. finger-mother) in Malay/Indonesian, hua-mee-muu (lit. head-mother-hand) in Thai, ngon tay cai (lit. digit-hand-mother) in Vietnamese, and muu zhi (lit. mother-finger) in Chinese. (The Chinese word muu appearing in this compound is not only a homonym for ‘mother’ but is itself written in a complex character consisting of the character for "mother" with the "hand" radical.) The Japanese word for thumb does not have "mother" in it, but the word for "thumbprint" (used in place of a proper hanko seal) is bo-in (a Chinese loan), and bo is the same character as the Chinese muu (i.e., "mother" with the "hand" radical.)

There are also many basic-level cultural vocabulary which defy precise rendition into simple words in Western languages, but these cultural words are rather easily transferable between the Asian languages; for example, omoiyari (Japanese) - berimbang rasa (Indonesian) both mean something like "being protective and considerate of other people's feelings." Note that we are not claiming that these feelings and concepts are not explainable or understandable to the speakers of Western languages. What is significant is the fact that they are categorized and lexicalized among these Asian languages.

It is possible to propose that these similar words have developed independently in genetically unrelated languages with the assumption that all languages have some predetermined goals. This kind of view was indeed proposed in a different context in the history of linguistics, but is now generally rejected. A more plausible hypothesis is that these similarities come about due to cultural contact. Our research starts with an attempt to catalogue these similar expressions. However, what is more important for us to consider is to evaluate the significance that these similar expressions bring to the psych of the speakers who use them in their daily interactions.

At the level of sentence structure, we can identify many features that, though completely lacking or very rare in European languages, are common among the languages of the region. Topic constructions, double-subject constructions, classifier constructions, reduplication, dropping of pronouns, adversity constructions (passives), and other distinct constructions dealing with mental and physiological states. For example, the "adversity passive" construction found in many Asian languages is the canonical type of passive, distinct from a more common type of passive structures found in Western languages. The adversity passive codes the adversity affect experienced by the receiver of an action or event. Thus, in the languages under discussion, a passive with an inanimate subject (e.g., ‘This book was written 100 years ago’) is very rare and awkward because the adversity passive by definition require a human subject (the English ‘get’ passive - ‘I got kicked by a horse’ – is the closest equivalent to the adversative passive) Chinese uses the morpheme bei ‘suffer/receive,’ and Thai uses the morpheme thuuk ‘come in contact with’ as a marker of adversity passive.

At the global communication level, we are struck by the similarity in the principles governing proper speech behavior (the art of speaking or the verbal culture) as manifested in proverbs and sayings. But probably most striking is the system of honorifics; Javanese, Japanese and Korean are among the most famous languages in the world with elaborate honorific systems. Speakers of a language with an honorific system must constantly check who they are talking to, what they are talking about, what social context they are talking in. Also many languages of the region possess a rich inventory of "pronouns" which are used selectively according to the sociolinguistic parameters of the speech situation (both Japanese and Thai can list 10 or more first person pronouns). The use of kin terms such as "grandpa, uncle," and "older sister," in place of pronouns is also widespread. In many Asian languages, it is common to say ‘Where is Uncle going?’ to mean ‘Where are you going?’ when addressing one’s uncle or someone who is about the same age as one’s own uncle. Another very important feature of many Asian languages is the use of sentence final particles. These are usually one syllable words, and express a speaker’s stance towards the propositional content of the sentence and towards the addressee, functionally corresponding to English, "Right?" or "You know what I mean?" and the like added at the end of a sentence. These phenomena at the level of communication are part of a larger common Asian speech pattern, which can be characterized as a highly context-dependent system, where the status and nature of speech act participants (speaker and hearer) and other contextual factors greatly influence the shaping of the utterance. Again, we will need to evaluate what psychological realities, if any, are behind these similarities.

3. The hypothesis and theoretical foundation
It is our hypothesis that the common linguistic features found among Asian languages, beyond genetic and typological reasons, come from the long contact among these different linguistic groups. Contact situations may take different forms, ranging from local grassroots level interaction with many bilingual speakers of two languages to high level political controlling situations. These include Chinese political and cultural expansion into Vietnam and cultural (including religious and linguistic) influence on Japan and Korea. Chinese influence may be weaker on insular Southeast Asia than on mainland Southeast Asia because of the geographical distance and historically shorter relations. But the more recent active Chinese diasporic populations in this region may be influencing these languages. These qualitatively different interaction patterns must influence languages differently. (We know, for a fact, that Chinese itself was influenced by Altaic languages with which it had contact in the north.) Another part of the hypothesis is that the quality of linguistic similarity, especially at the level of communication, must come from common philosophical tradition(s).

We will address these issues at the meeting scheduled during the first year. However, before the meeting, we must assemble a catalog of similar features across the languages, so as to establish a solid database for cross-linguistic resemblances at a more linguistically sophisticated level than casual observations made by individual linguists working in the region. At the moment, there is no such database.

The findings will be used as the basis for testing the hypothesis during the meeting in the first year. In more concrete terms, we will first consider two competing views on similarities among the languages. The first view is that there are one or more fundamental linguistic features that bind all the languages in the region. The second is that there are no features that are common to all languages, but specific languages share clusters of similar features. According to this second view, if Language A shares more features with Language B than with Language C, then Language A resembles B more so than C. The features we must include are those originated from the languages’ genetic stock, known typological characteristics, and, finally, from their cultural contact.

Grammatical similarities across genetically distinct languages have been studied under the rubric of "areal features," India being a prime example of a linguistic area. However, a more ambitious attempt of comprehensively establishing a linguistic area, encompassing the entire East and Southeast Asia, has never been attempted. There seem to be several reasons for the lack of such attempts. First, it is considered dangerous to talk about "Asianness" among these languages because it may promote the stereotyping of the peoples in the region against non-Asians. Second, with the realization that there is no connection between the level of sophistication of civilization and the complexity of language, structural and descriptive linguists have tended to confine themselves to the description of language structure in isolation from cultural considerations. Third, when Asian linguists compare their languages with others, they have tended to compare them with European languages, and only with a single language if an Asian language was chosen. These facts have prevented us from nurturing a pan-Asiatic perspective. However, the recent developments in linguistic research afford a new and broader perspective on the languages and their speakers in Asia. In particular, new advances in typological linguistics, coupled with the fast-developing cognitive-functional approaches, allow us to deal with diversity and uniformity of linguistic phenomena with a renewed rigor in a coherent framework, with the possibility of opening up a new avenue of inquiry into the age-old questions of language and society on the one hand, and language and cognition on the other. While we should avoid a superficial stereotyping of Asianness, we need a strong counter perspective to the Western perspective that is prevailing in linguistic research. Though an exciting proposal in the same direction is now being proposed for non-Western languages and their speakers (e.g. Gary Palmer, "Toward a theory of cultural linguistics" 1996) no such research is carried out for Asian languages.

Another linguistic model upon which we develop our research is similar to "Emergent Grammar," most strongly put forward by Paul Hopper (Carnegie Melon University). This model views grammar as something that is not static and predetermined, but something that emerges by responding to the ways in which people use their language. Our model goes one step further beyond the "Emergent Grammar" paradigm, in that while Emergent Grammar is concerned primarily with how speaker’s cognitive orientation shapes grammar when engaging in discourse (e.g., most typically conversation), our model includes more global socio-cultural aspects which affect the grammar and lexicon. This model is diametrically opposed to the currently favored theory of language established on Western languages, mostly English, which views language as something that develops autonomously within human cognition alone, without interaction with nonlinguistic factors. To put it differently, our linguistic model considers language as something akin to biological organisms. In the history of biological organisms there is a well-recognized mechanism of convergent evolution by which originally different structures of unrelated organisms are adapted to the same kind of functional demand and end up with a similar appearance that was generated by function, not by descent from a common ancestor. We propose that mutual cultural influence can produce similar results in adapting dissimilar linguistic structures to recognizably common grammatical shapes.

Our initial hypothesis will be made public through a web-page we create with the grant. On this web-page, we make an announcement of the research, and publish our individual papers written during the first year. We solicit discussion, and call for papers for a conference we organize during the second year. Since we are aware that our linguistic research needs input from other disciplines, we will make a special effort to invite researchers in such fields as anthropology and cultural studies in addition to linguistics.

4. The workshop
By the time we hold a three-day workshop at UCLA in December. 2003, we will have a list of linguistic features at the lexical, structural, and communicational levels, and will have made a preliminary study on how similar linguistic phenomena might emerge. At the workshop, we attempt two things. First, we will debate if the similar features collected are result of cultural contacts, or have arisen naturally and independently within the linguistic system. We will make an advance as much as possible within the linguistic model we propose. Second, we will discuss the gap in our knowledge, and consider who will be able to fill this intellectual gap that linguists alone cannot fill. Most likely candidates are anthropologists and cultural historians. We will consider who we should invite, and we will immediately contact these candidates (see below).

5. The conference
A two-day conference will be scheduled at UCLA in September, 2004. Before the conference, we will make our agenda public via several linguistic discussion lists, and on our web-page, and publish a call for papers for the conference. In addition to the five collaborators, six additional scholars are invited to the conference. Other contributions will be chosen according to the criteria we set forth. The conference consists of three main sections. The first section organized by the five main collaborators demonstrates the need for culturally-sensitive linguistics. The second section is a contribution by non-linguists who demonstrate how similarities and differences could be understood from different perspectives. The third section consists of individual papers by linguists and non-linguists to make various contributions. Our preliminary discussions have identified the following scholars as invited speakers: Linguists: James Matisoff (UCB Emeritus) Walter Bisang (U. of Mainz). Paul Hopper (Carnegie Melon), Shuan-fan Huang (National Taiwan University), Charles Li (UCSB), Chao-fen Sun (Stanford), Ho-Min Sohn (U. of Hawaii), Ketut Artawa (Udayana University); Anthropologists: Stephen Lansing (U of Arizona/Santa Fe Institute), Yuan-chao Tung (Ph.D., South Methodist Univ.), Gary Palmer (U. of Nevada).

6. Tentative schedule and procedures
As a preliminary to the project proposal, the four of the core investigators met in 2001 at UC Santa Barbara where the Summer Institute of the Linguistic Society of America was held. The purpose was to confirm our initial ideas about the common thread among the Asian languages and to discuss further possibilities for collaboration. The following is our tentative schedule.

  • July, 2003. The PI will construct an interactional web page. He will distribute among the workshop participants, using the web -page, a statement of the project with critical references, and solicit initial comments. Other participants add more references to be examined before the workshop. The main goal is to create a data base of relevant linguistic features by September. Exchange reading lists on linguistic diversity and coherence.
  • September-December, 2003: Examination of the collected data in different Asian languages, and formalization of the hypothesis. UCLA faculty meet occasionally during this period.
  • December, 2003. Three day Workshop at UCLA. Discussion of the hypothesis; Constructing a list of invited researchers from linguistics, anthropology and other related disciplines, and start contacting these scholars
  • January - August 2004. Continuous discussion on the web, and preparation of preliminary papers; conference announcement and solicitation of contributions
  • September, 2004. Conference
  • October 2003-April, 2005 Writing articles
  • April- May 2005 Editing papers
  • June 2005, Submission of papers to the publisher

7. Expected results
The expected results from the proposed research are far-reaching. From the point of view of the theories in linguistic science, the research will chart a new course for an alternative model of linguistic description to the currently dominant ones based on Western languages. This is important and necessary, as our experiences with Asian languages indicate that there is a vast area of grammatical phenomenon that is not amenable to the frameworks based on Western languages. Our results also place languages in their proper socio-cultural context, affording a unified perspective on the intimate connection among language, culture, and society.

Both Iwasaki and Shibatani have extensive publication experiences with such publishers as Cambridge University Press and John Benjamins. These publishers are very interested in publishing the type of linguistics we represent, and are open to a new collaboration with researchers from other disciplines.