Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper examines the ideologies that inform Tibetan/Chinese script mixing in Amdo, a region of greater Tibet today incorporated into the western Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu. Amdo has a long history of language contact and convergence, but has more recently seen the rise of standard Mandarin as a lingua franca. Beginning in the 1950s, language planning for both Tibetan and Chinese gained importance alongside the promotion of standard Mandarin. Language and education policies attempted to unify diverse spoken languages by associating them with a single written code: Tibetan or Chinese. Tibetan and Chinese language policies thus share the premise that multiple spoken varieties should be subsumed to a single written standard, in order to support national unity. However, Tibetan employs an alphabetic writing system and Chinese a character system. These different semiotic relationships of spoken language to orthography provoke both generativity and ideological constraint.
I examine this dynamic of generativity and constraint through social media debates about Tibetan/Chinese mixed signage. These signs (such as menus and business names) mix scripts through orthographic substitution. Specifically, they use Chinese characters to represent Tibetan words, or represent Chinese words phonetically with the Tibetan alphabet. I show how social media reactions to mixed-script signage reveal a specific standard language ideology: a Tibetan scriptal ideology that seeks to align speech with spelling. I show how orthographic substitution in mixed-script signage has lead this scriptal ideology to travel across modes and media, constraining uses of written language as well as spoken language.