Issue No 10: August 2005
Total of $60m funding announced for public policy research
Q&A: PIs taking leave exceeding 183 days
Visit to Lingnan University
Oxygen-scarce oceans threaten fish survival
Natural anti-fouling compounds found in study of coral and sponges
Shellfish used as a fish farm biofilter
World's largest child bilingualism database helps linguistics research
Morpheme awareness clue to Chinese language ability
Ancient language links to modern Chinese

Historically important Asian languages, most of which have come into contact with Chinese, have been captured in a database, the first of its kind in East Asia. The research has preserved vocabularies of more than 1,000 words from each of 99 Sino-Tibetan (ST) languages and dialects, mostly spoken in east and southeast Asia and some of which are heading for extinction.
Prof Sun working on Ersu, a language with about 20,000 speakers in Sichuan, China
Languages in the database
(1) Tibeto-Burman: a large group of languages including Yi (as in southwest China), Tibetan, Tamang (Nepal), Burmese and Karen (Myanmar).
(2) Hmong-Mien: a small group of languages spoken by the Hmong or Miao in Chinese and Mien or Yao.
(3) Tai-Kadai: including Thai, Lao, and some languages in China; such as Li (Hainan), Kam or Dong (Guizhou), and Zhuang (Guangxi).
(4) Chinese
(5) Austroasiatic: including Wa (China and Myanmar) and Mang (China and Vietnam).
(6) Austronesian: including Atayal and Paiwan (Taiwan), and Tagalog or Filipino
(7) Reconstructions of the proto or ancestral languages.
The Queyu language, which currently only has about 7,000 speakers in Sichuan, China, is an example. Database material also covers reconstructions of prehistoric Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST) words which evolved into today’s ST languages.
Principal Investigator, Professor and Dean (Emeritus) Pang-hsin Ting of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), said the database will be of great help to linguists, and in preserving untapped history.
An objective of the research was to prove genetic relationships among the languages. The most important finding of the research, said Prof Ting, was proof that Tai languages, which include Thai, Lao and Zhuang (spoken in Guangxi, China), are probably related to the Sino-Tibetan family.
“Previously,” he said, “there was no definitive conclusion as to whether the lexical similarities between Chinese and Tai were derived from cognates or were the result of language contact. Now we think the two groups are genetically related.”
Another finding was that the Hmong-Mien language group, referred to in Chinese as Miao and Yao, is probably related to the ST family, although more study and evidence is needed, said Prof Ting. The database draws on information collected over the last 40 years from more than 100 locations, mostly carried out by researchers of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, including Prof Hongkai Sun, Co-I of the research project.
Originally constructed using the Chinese edition of FoxPro, the database can now export query results to MS Word and Excel files. Plans include making the database available on Internet this year.
Currently, the database is at academic instutions in Beijing and Taipei as well as HKUST. Users can search for words from the different languages and dialects which are divided into seven categories (see panel). They can also search for words using criteria such as meaning in Chinese or English or strings of symbols from the international phonetic alphabet.
Reconstruction of the proto or ancestral languages, used more than 6,000 years ago, is done by comparing the daughter languages and back-projecting the most likely sounds used, Prof Ting added.

Principal Investigator
Prof Pang-hsin Ting :