Research

Research projects of Mathias Jenny

The development of verb-initial structures cross-linguistically

The Greater Burma Zone - a transitional zone of languages and peoples

This project is a cross-disciplinary study of what I call the ‘Greater Burma Zone’, combining linguistics with anthropological and historical studies. The Greater Burma Zone forms something of a loose transitional area between the South and Southeast Asian linguistic areas, as historically-situated linguistic evidence suggests. Present day Burma (Myanmar) consists of an extensive plain stretching along the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers in the north to the Irrawaddy delta and Salween plain in the south and southeast. This lowland area is surrounded by mountains on three sides and the Bay of Bengal in the south. The area has been home to different peoples, states and kingdoms, mostly unstable and with shifting boundaries, since at least the early centuries AD. Political power in general spread much faster and more thoroughly in the plains than in the less accessible retreat zones in mountainous and densely forested regions, a phenomenon that recently received some attention in anthropological and historical studies. From what we know in other parts of the world this dichotomy is expected also to leave signals also in linguistic structures, signals that may be be leveled or disappear in the course of increasing communication and transport facilities between the areas. Over 100 languages belonging to six different language families (Sino-Tibetan, Austroasiatic, Tai-Kadai, as well as smaller communities of Hmong-Mien, Indo-European, and Austronesian) are spoken in the area. In a few of these there are written documents going back over a thousand years, while in most cases only recent, if any, material is available. Initial investigations have shown that the languages of the zone can be read as ‘palimpsests’: for example, many of the varieties of Tai languages, while reflecting their eastern Mainland Southeast Asian origins, have come to take on more firmly Greater Burma features as speakers have moved west. Khamti (Tai) has a ‘genetic’ typological profile written further east, over which has been written a set of features acquired through contact over many centuries with surrounding languages in north and northeast Burma. Karenic languages (Tibeto-Burman), on the other hand, have restructured their syntax to the more typical Southeast Asian verb-medial type, but still retain a number of features usually associated with the verb-final Tibeto-Burman languages.

This project takes a fundamentally diachronic approach to the investigation of the language convergence, determining the social and political processes over the centuries that have brought speakers of languages into and across the region, and at other times have forced them out, leading to the present distribution of languages and linguistic features. This project will investigate a representative selection of languages of the Greater Burma Zone to establish an areal typological profile, looking at the distribution of features covering all linguistic domains, from phonetics-phonology to pragmatics and the lexicon. Burmese as the national language naturally occupies an important position in the linguistic landscape of the area, which is marked by wide-spread bi- and multi-lingualism, in most cases asymmetrical, leading to different contact situations. The extent and kind of these influences in small-scale contact scenarios can give important insight in establishing the linguistic landscape of the Greater Burma Zone. The results also feed back into anthropological and historical studies of the area, a field of research becoming ever more important, and now possible, with the recent political,and ensuing social and cultural, changes in Burma.

The basic questions to be answered are ‘what linguistic features are found where in the area, and why are they found where they are’. To achieve this goal, the project will make use of different sources, including published language material such as grammatical descriptions, texts, and inscriptions, which will be complemented by original material to be collected in punctual fieldwork. The analysis will be done by application of methodological tools from general linguistics, especially areal and contact linguistics and linguistic typology, and history, combining the two fields to achieve viable results.

In search of Austroasiatic

Project website: Link

The Austroasiatic language family as such has been known in the linguistics community for over a century and considerable advances have been made in terms of historical comparison, lexical reconstruction of protoforms, and classification. Many questions still await answers in these fields, but progress is steadily made. The situation is very different when it comes to the morphosyntactic structure of the AA languages. Not many people working in the field venture into this important domain. The reasons for this lack of a typological overview are many. The AA Munda languages of India are well integrated in their linguistic environment, that is, they are part of the South Asian linguistic area, while the Mon-Khmer languages of Southeast Asia show many areal features of their surroundings. There are no known or well described AA languages spoken outside of these two strong sprachbunds, so it is not easy to make statements about the original typological structure of AA. Also, syntactic structures are much more difficult to reconstruct for languages that lack a long historical record, which is the case for most AA languages, with the exception of Mon, Khmer and Vietnamese. Areal convergence in syntax is obviously a non-conscious process and therefore more subtle than lexical borrowing, which adds to the difficulty of answering the question ‘who copied who and when’. With these obstacles, it looks all but impossible to make any statements about what AA looked like typologically. In spite of these difficulties, it is possible to sort out some instances of development, both language internal and areal. In many cases what at first sight looks like areal convergence can be explained as language internal development, perhaps accelerated by language contact. One case in point is the clause or phrase initial position of interrogatives in Mon, which seems to be due to Burmese influence, but is also found in other AA languages, including Old Mon. In the present project I look at different constructions in a wide range of AA languages. Ideally, a comparison of these structures with corresponding expressions in neighboring languages, together with the historical development in the languages with early records, will enable us to crystallize at least a possible range of ‘original’ AA constructions. Of special value are of course Khmer and Mon, with a documented history of well over a thousand years, but also the Nicobarese languages may well have a say, after potentially having been isolated from intensive foreign influence for at least four millennia. It goes without saying that all available resources on AA languages have to be included in a typological project like this, and that new data must be gathered and made available, especially data on the numerous poorly documented languages. The research is still in its beginning and involves investigation in dozens of languages, including many without good descriptions available. Features, such as relative expressions, serial verb constructions/complex predicates, word order and information structure, nominals and nominal modifiers, and many more still to be defined have to be included in the investigation. It is hoped that other specialist in the field will join the project and help further our understanding of the AA language family.

Contact phenomena in Southeast Asian languages

Southeast Asia is home to members of five language families, namely Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien, and Austronesian. Hundreds of years of close contact have inevitably led to a large number of cases of convergence on all levels of the linguistic systems. Languages have not only borrowed lexical items from each other, they also copied or replicated semantic and syntactic structures. As some languages have a documented history of over a thousand years, some evidence of the direction of influence and the source of diffusion can be gained from historical comparisons. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that a number of languages of the region are rather well known, much is still needed in terms of typological comparison. Especially the Austroasiatic languages are still not very well described and a general typological overview is still lacking. The same is true for the Tai-Kadai languages. Most current work covering more than one language concentrates on historical lexical comparison and language classification, with syntax being neglected by most linguists active in the area. My ongoing research especially in Austro-Asiatic, but also Tai-Kadai and Tibeto-Burman languages, focuses on syntactic typology, with the long term aim of establishing typological profiles of these langauges.

Mon Grammar

An ongoing long term project is the compilation of a comprehensive reference grammar of Mon, including both the spoken language and literary Mon, taking into account all documented stages of the language from Old Mon to present usage. Material for this grammar is being collected during regular visits to Mon areas in Thailand and Myanmar. Mon is one of the main cultural languages (and one of the earliest to be written) of Southeast Asia. Most of its former area was lost to invading Tibeto-Burman (Bama, Karen) and Tai (Thai, Lao) peoples, as well as to the expanding Khmer kingdom of Angkor at the beginning of the second millennium. A number of Old and Middle Mon inscriptions survive, enough to give us a rather clear picture of the development of the language during the past 1500 years. Today Mon is spoken mostly in southern Myanmar by some 800,000 to one million speakers, with up to 100,000 more in Thailand, many of which are semi-speakers or mere rememberers. In spite of its large number of speakers, the future of Mon has often been predicted to be less than bright, as most Mon are to some degree bilingual, speaking also Burmese and/or Thai. Political pressure by the Burmese regime has led to an increase in Mon language use in recent years as part of non-violent resistance. Mon is now taught at a number of schools throughout Mon State and the Mon entertainment business is producing popular and classical music on CD and VCD. Western interest in Mon has been rather low in the recent past, with only a handful of international academics working on Mon linguistic issues. There are a number of dictionaries available, but no reference grammar in a Western language. Presentation: Mon - an endangered language?

The forgotten literature of the Mon

A bit apart from my central activities (but also pretty much in the centre of my interests) is a study/translation of a classical Mon epic called 'The story of Prince Sangada'. Written in traditional Mon verse, this work not only gives valuable insight into Mon literary forms and language, but also into local beliefs and myths. The poem is not dated, but its rhyme patterns date back to a pre-devoiced/pre-register form of the language. No piece of Mon literature has been translated and published in a Western language in many decades and also among the Mon themselves the traditional literature is in danger of disappearing. It is hoped that this study will help to bring to a bigger audience this 'forgotten literature' of Southeast Asia.

Other important pieces of Mon literature I am currently working on are the "Legend of Gavampati" (hla pot Gawompatoe), a quasi historical account of Buddha's journey to Southeast Asia and Monland, and the more recent compilation of the "History of Kyaikhtiyo", the famous golden rock in Monland. Both texts are very popular among the Mon but hardly known to ousiders. A Mon translation of the famous Thai epic Khun Chang Khun Phaen (Kon phen kon chaeng in Mon) was published in Burma in 2001, but its origin must be much earlier. The story is found in palm leaf manuscripts, one kept at the EFEO in Paris, and might well be the translation of a proto-version of the Thai text which has later been extended and edited several times, resulting in the present "official" Thai version.

I am especially interested in local histories, legends, and literatures of the peoples in Southeast Asia (click on the link "Mon historical sites" at the bottom of the page for a short description of some unexplored historical sites in Monland). A few dozen palm leaf and mulberry paper manuscripts in my private collection, mostly in Khün and Shan (and some mixture of both), with some in Lao, Burmese and Mon, are waiting to be edited, analysed and translated. The topics found in these manuscripts are mainly locally adapted Buddhist tales, folk medicine, astrology and historical legends. A sample of a Khün text in transliteration with translation can be downloaded at the bottom of he page (Kannakavatti).

In most cultures religion plays a major part, and the Theravada-Buddhist traditions of Asia, intermingled with indigenous beliefs and Hindu myths are a fascinating background for cultural and historical research.

Apart from doing linguistic research in the Thai-Myanmar border area, I am also involved in the organisation and development of a Mon Dance and Music Project. The project started in 2003 with a group of engaged Mon people in the border village of Sangkhlaburi. It intended as a way to promote and preserve Mon culture and give the children in the village a possibility to spend their spare time with creative and constructive activities. The project developed into a well known institution in the community, with some twenty children performing not only in Sangkhlaburi, but also in other provinces of Thailand, including Bangkok, and neighbouring Myanmar. Teachers from across the border are regularly hired during holidays to further the musical and dancing skills of the young dancers and musicians. I am especially interested in local histories, legends, and literatures of the peoples in Southeast Asia (click on the link "Mon historical sites" at the bottom of the page for a short description of some unexplored historical sites in Monland). A few dozen palm leaf and mulberry paper manuscripts in my private collection, mostly in Khün and Shan (and some mixture of both), with some in Lao, Burmese and Mon, are waiting to be edited, analysed and translated. The topics found in these manuscripts are mainly locally adapted Buddhist tales, folk medicine, astrology and historical legends. A sample of a Khün text in transliteration with translation can be downloaded at the bottom of he page (Kannakavatti). In most cultures religion plays a major part, and the Theravada-Buddhist traditions of Asia, intermingled with indigenous beliefs and Hindu myths are a fascinating background for cultural and historical research.