Who we are
We're a small group of linguists (and a growing group of volunteers) that believe that there is tremendous value in documenting China's rapidly disappearing languages and dialects. Phonemica is a project to do exactly that. We are building an open archive of stories from people all over China and the Chinese diaspora, told in the everyday speech of their home towns.
These stories are not just limited to Mandarin. We’re recording Cantonese, Hakka, Wu and every other language with a Chinese connection. Our ultimate goal is to have truly enjoyable stories representing the full diversity of the Chinese languages. Think of it as a Chinese-language version of StoryCorps, but backed with a powerful system for linguistic analysis and preservation, all of which anyone can contribute to and anyone can use under our Creative Commons licensing.
To date we have about 50 recordings. Our goal is to have over 500 recordings up by this time next year. This is an astonishingly large undertaking, and we are working with crowd-sourced, volunteer-generated content.
Crowd-sourcing not only makes the scale of this project possible, it is the only way to get the type of language we are looking for: intimate language, the language of home and friends. For ordinary media interviewers and even for linguists doing research, Chinese fangyan (as the Chinese languages are known in Mandarin) can be difficult to explore because of interference from standard Mandarin, the prestige language that is taught at schools and encouraged at work and in daily interactions. Many fangyan speakers use their true mother tongues only with their friends and family, and sometimes consider that language "embarrassing" or at least inappropriate for use with an outsider. For example if a TV reporter goes to interview 50 year-old Sòng Hóngchéng from Hubei farming country, chances are the language you will hear is standard Mandarin with some local flavour -- Mr. Song's best "outsider" language. You won't hear the language he would use with friends around the dinner table. By having speakers of each language interview their friends, relatives and neighbours, Phonemica aims to provide a window into this hard-to-explore area of language and culture.
Developing the infrastructure for sharing and organising this content has already been hugely time consuming. We've built a system where anyone can create an account and contribute in a number of different ways. It's been two years in development, and we're still not done making it better. In addition to time, there are also financial costs involved. So far this has all been out of pocket.
We want to keep up our momentum and increase the reach of this project, but we can't do that without your help.
What we're asking for
This fundraiser is meant to help us cover our costs for 2013. It also includes marketing costs for the year, the cost of some events to encourage greater participation from those in China, as well as future marketing costs so that we can tell more people about this important project. Finally, it will allow us to invest in a computer that’s up to the tasks of editing audio, developing our program and handling backups. Right now we do everything on two small notebook computers that are well beyond their expected life spans.
Your donation will help us cover our regular annual costs for 2013, as well as allowing us make a long-term investment in the hardware needed to manage the system and all its parts.
We're asking for US$4,175. Below is a quick breakdown of these costs.
- Operational: $1000
- $200 - website hosting and domain fees for one year
- $300 - general operational costs for one year
- $155 - business registration fees for the US. This is the first step towards establishing an official presence in mainland China. Registration will also make it easier to seek sponsorship from other companies and organisations.
- $345 - a buffer to help cover some of the fees for using Indiegogo and Paypal to raise the funds
- Equipment costs: $2075
- $200 - a single portable professional-grade audio recorder
- $275 - 4 portable recorders (dictaphones) to be lent out to volunteers throughout the area.
- $1600 - a dedicated desktop computer (and monitor) to handle audio editing, graphic design and the development coding and maintenance of our system, as well as managing daily backups of the site and database. Presently everything is done on two old notebook computers that have a hard time keeping up.
Events & Marketing: $1100
- $500 - marketing materials and associated fees (translators, business cards etc)
- $600 - costs for events to encourage greater participation as well as offering some training. Think of it as a dinner workshop.
As we said at the top, our goal is to have over 500 recordings up by this time next year. The above items are to help us reach that goal. Most of these costs are one-time equipment purchases which are to last around five years with proper care.
In the future, we also plan to develop a series training videos. These would teach people how to gather high quality recordings with limited equipment, as well as topics such as eliciting stories from shy speakers, how to use some of the software and hardware we recommend, as well as some video courses on phonetic transcription.
Why language preservation matters
Language is a window into the human mind. Studying diversity in language helps us understand diversity in culture and how we exist as societies. Sadly, much of China’s linguistic diversity is being threatened by ever-growing pressure from Standard Mandarin. As a result, fewer people are teaching their mother tongues to their children.
One consequence of this is that we’re quickly approaching a point where children cannot communicate with their grandparents, whose stories will then be lost. The academic side is that, with this loss of linguistic diversity, we are losing opportunities to understand how these languages work, giving us that much less to help us understand how language as a whole works.
The linguistic situation is changing rapidly. Mandarin and Cantonese are just two of nearly a dozen related languages spoken in and around China. Some of these languages may be gone in a couple generations as fewer and fewer people are raising their children in their native tongue, opting instead for Mandarin. With the difference of just one generation, a huge number of significant changes are evident in how people speak as Mandarin exerts its influence, and these changes aren't likely to slow down.
Other ways to help
Even if you can't help fund the project, we still need your help. Financial contributions are just one part of what we need. We also need your help to get the word out. We're trying to reach as many people as we can, including teachers, students learning Mandarin, members of the overseas Chinese communities, and anyone who has an interest in hearing interesting stories from across the globe.
Maps in video taken from《中国语言地图集》published by 中国社会科学院, Chinese College of Social Sciences
Music: Bright Step by [que.]
All photographs (c) 2009-2013 Kellen Parker or Steve Hansen
Pin map above based upon Google Maps