Q&A with student Henry Wu: historical linguistics and so-called "niche" languages

Monday 8 July 2019

CASS student Henry Wu took part in a panel discussion ‘Languages Across Time’ at the International Conference on Historical Linguistics, co-organised with the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. 

We caught up with him at the panel and discussed what historical linguistics is and the value of studying languages that aren’t widely spoken.

Henry: I’m in my third year of a PhB arts degree and I’m studying linguistics. 

CASS: Are you majoring in linguistics?

Henry: Yes. I have also taken lots of other language classes; Sanskrit mainly. I’ve taken two semesters of literary Chinese, a semester of Tibetan and a semester of Gamilaraay, an Indigenous language.

CASS: Why have you chosen to take on such a diverse range of what some might call “niche” languages?

Henry: I think there are two answers to that. The first is these languages are obviously part of a bigger picture of linguistic diversity more generally. It’s not always the number of speakers of a language which determines how interesting a language is for linguistic study. So for instance, Tibetan has all sorts of interesting language features, like evidentiality: it marks whether you see something firsthand or whether you’ve heard it from someone indirectly. This feature is common in a lot of different languages, but not in a lot of widely spoken languages. And so if we were just studying languages which were really widely spoken and not the ones which aren’t so widely spoken or in areas where people can't reach easily, we're missing a lot of the really interesting linguistic diversity that exists out there. That’s something that really interests me as a linguistics student as well.

The second part of the answer is that, for the people who speak these languages and the cultures which these languages are a part of, it's very demeaning I think to call them niche and it forms such an integral part of the fabric of culture diversity in the world. I think it’s important, regardless of how many speakers a language has, or how "useful" it might be for job prospects or that kind of thing, for people to have these in mind and respect the people who speak these languages.

CASS: Yes, instead of “niche”, commonly spoken or widely spoken or not is probably a better way of putting it. 

Henry: Yeah and obviously that's something which is empirically measurable as opposed to putting a worth on a language, which obviously is not an empirically measurable thing. 

CASS: So you participated in this panel as part of the International Conference on Historical Linguistics. Was this the first time you’ve participated in such a way?

Henry: Yes, so it’s the first panel I’ve ever done. The first talk I’ve really given at a conference, which is exciting. It’s not a paper talk but it’s still a talk nonetheless. Generally, I’m just very interested in historical linguistics and really excited to be part of a conference which brings together so many different types of people working on so many different areas of historical linguistics. I think it’s through events like this and through outreach like this that we bring together a whole bunch of different strengths and knowledges about language in the past and its speakers and really build more knowledge and make people more interested about this really important subject.

CASS: What is historical linguistics?

Henry: I would define historical linguistics as the study of language change, so how languages change over time. There are lots of different facets of that, of language change. For example, one thing that historical linguists might be interested in is how languages have changed their structures over time or how sounds might change over time or how different generations of speakers might use language differently. And obviously, historical linguistics language change happens everywhere at every time, and so the really exciting thing I think is that you get linguistics coming in from all around the world working on all different kinds of languages at all different points in time. So, I just gave a talk on something which happened centuries ago, whereas some of these other speakers and some of the other people who are presenting are talking about things which are happening right now. I think it's only when we bring together all these different examples of how languages change and why they change that we really get a good picture of language and the story of language and how that story plays into our lives.

CASS: Can you tell us what your talk was about?

Henry: My talk was about Buddhist-Chinese translation. So, Buddhism isn’t native to China in the sense that the Buddha was not born in China. The Buddha was born in the north of India basically. One of the questions I’ve been most interested in, both on a linguistic level, but more generally, is how does something like that spread; how does religion spread across so many different cultures and so widely across hundreds of kilometres. What I've been interested in is how we can use these translations that we have, so texts which have been translated from other languages into Chinese centuries ago, and how we can look at the language of them to figure out more information about how that process takes place; how do translators, how do bilingual speakers of mystery language A and Chinese – how do they actually produce those translations and how do those translations spread so that we can ultimately build a better picture of how ideas get transferred from one culture to another. And how something like religion which is very complicated; there’s lots of different aspects to it, moves from one context to another.

CASS: And in terms of the texts that were translated, are you talking about Buddhist texts or just general texts that are talking about Buddhism and that religion?

Henry: Most these are Buddhist texts, insofar as they... we might call them Buddhist scripture. So these are supposedly texts which are either attributed to the Buddha or to one of his disciples. And these are texts which form an integral part of the cannon of Buddhist teachings. So these texts are part of a very specific social context, obviously. We have various translations, into multiple different languages, and one of the things that Buddhist studies scholars are very interested in is comparing all these different translations to look at the different ideas. From a linguistic point of view, what I’m more interested in is the actual language and the actual translation process. But obviously to understand the whole picture, we have to bring together disciplines like religious studies, like history, like linguistics, to really understand what was actually happening at this time. 


You can read our profile of Henry Wu from when he was a first year student here.

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Updated:  11 July 2019/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications