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Traditional Neologisms? Language Ideologies in Twenty-First Century Tibet

Sun, April 3, 8:30 to 10:30am, Washington State Convention Center, Floor: 6th Floor, Room 609


Throughout much of the twenty-first century, Tibetans in China, particularly intellectuals, have engaged in an increasingly high-profile campaign to promote language purity – purging the Tibetan language of Chinese loanwords and replacing them with Tibetan neologisms. In this campaign, Tibetan comedians have encouraged their audiences to speak pure Tibetan through juxtaposing positive and negative examples of language use in the mouths of different speakers. Tibetan singers have been even more explicit, singing songs about speaking pure Tibetan. Meanwhile, a number of new picture dictionaries have been published in hopes of teaching people the “correct” terms for a variety of new technologies. And although these activities all involve a significant aspect of linguistic innovation through the coining and use of neologisms, Tibetans almost uniformly view them as promoting traditions considered to be under threat.
In this paper, I examine normative statements on discursive practice from a variety of sources including social media like WeChat, blogs, comedies, songs, and interviews, to discuss the development of new language ideologies linking otherwise modern values like language purity and the appropriate use of neologisms, with a desire to preserve Tibetan traditions. Placed within the larger theoretical frameworks of language purism and hygiene, I suggest that the discursive relation of pure language and preservation of traditional cultural practices believed to be under threat is part of a Tibetan intellectual stance promoting a uniquely Tibetan approach to modernity based largely in discursive practice.