Sociolinguistic Survey of Ersu

Katia Chirkova and Wang Dehe, two ELDP grantees, have conducted – in collaboration with James N. Stanford of Dartmouth College – a sociolinguistic survey of the Ersu language, aimed at investigating consonantal variation in this language. The survey was part of the “Comparative and Cross-Varietal Documentation of Highly Endangered Languages of South-West China” (MDP 0257) project, which was funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) and lasted from 2013 to 2017. An article based on this sociolinguistic survey will be published in the forthcoming issue of the journal Language Variation and Change (30.1).


Ersu (/ə́˞-s̪v̩́ xò/, 尔苏语 ěrsūyǔ, ISO-639 code ers) is a little-studied Tibeto-Burman language spoken in rural areas of Southwest China. Together with Lizu and Duoxu, two closely related languages, Ersu is currently classified as a member of the Qiangic subgroup of the Tibeto-Burman language family. Ersu is endangered. Only half of the overall ethnic population of ca. 16,800 Ersu people are proficient speakers of Ersu. Moreover, Ersu is under increasing pressure from its neighbouring languages: Nuosu (or Yi, Lolo-Burmese, Tibeto-Burman) and Southwestern Mandarin Chinese (Sinitic).

Photo of a traditional Ersu village at the edge of the Tibetan plateau in Sichuan province; photo by Wang Dehe (王德和)

Throughout history, the Ersu people were a traditional society, marrying strictly within their own group. The majority of people were monolingual in Ersu; and only a few Ersu people could speak languages of their ethnic neighbors. However, the past decades brought important changes to their lifestyle. Ersu-speaking areas became more closely integrated into the People’s Republic as a nation, and as a result, the national language of Mandarin Chinese has become prestigious and dominant in the Ersu community. The rapid transition toward an unequal prestige relationship between Ersu and Mandarin has led to considerable variation and change in Ersu. The sociolinguistic survey, which is the topic of this blog post, aimed to study these processes.

Data for the survey were collected in two field trips to Ersu-speaking areas in February and August of 2015. They amounted to over 24 hours of speech data from 97 speakers of Ersu (52 women, 45 men, ages 8-94) with a focus on the following four variables:

  • loss of typologically uncommon trilled retroflex sounds (e.g., [ʈɽ], [ɽ])
  • delateralization of the lateral fricative ([ɬ] ~ [x])
  • devoicing of stops and affricates (e.g., [b] ~ [p])
  • simplification of onsets (e.g., [mb] ~ [b])

The recorded data included word elicitation (a total of 116 words) and ethnographic interviews. All sound files, textgrids, transcriptions, and metadata related to this study are now made available at the Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR; They can be used for further exploration and acoustic analysis.

Sociolinguistic survey of the Ersu language, Ganluo County, February 2015; from left to right: Yuebumo (约布莫), Yici Agamo (依次阿呷莫), Gui Huama (贵花玛), Aguomo (阿果莫), Ayi Yibu (阿依衣布), Agare (阿呷惹); photo by Wang Dehe (王德和)

Quantitative analysis of the data reveals that language change is indeed in progress. The change we observed is phonological convergence, or the leveling of phonological differences between Ersu and its dominant contact language, Mandarin Chinese. The Ersu case study furthermore shows that convergence between languages in an unequal prestige relationship can be manifested in a socially stratified way, which is consistent with many of the classic Labovian sociolinguistic principles for age, sex, and social class.

To our knowledge, the present study is the first large-scale sociolinguistic survey of Ersu, and the first variationist study of any Tibeto-Burman language in Southwest China. It contributes to a more comprehensive documentation and description of the Ersu language and also to a better understanding of the process of phonological convergence and, more broadly, of variation and change in a multilingual setting.

An article by the research team outlining the results of the survey entitled “A long way from New York City: Socially stratified contact-induced phonological convergence in Ganluo Ersu (Sichuan, China)” is to appear in the forthcoming issue of the journal Language Variation and Change (30.1).

Sociolinguistic survey of the Ersu language, Ganluo County, August 2015; photo by Wang Dehe (王德和)

By Katia Chirkova

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