Writing right: Language standardization and entextualization

Judith M.S. Pine


Literate Lahu, speakers of a Tibeto-Burman language in the ethnically and linguistically diverse uplands of Southeast Asia and southwest China, inscribe their language in an ecology of literacies shaped by the imbrication of a number of ideologies. As members of the larger category of chao khao or mountain people, the Lahu belong to a group which is persistently labeled as Other. (Laungaramsri 2001: 43-4). Lahu are also a people-without-writing (Pine 1999), despite the fact that at least three writing systems exist for Lahu, with a fourth in somewhat limited use and at least one other system in development. The ideological diversity of the entextualization of Lahu benefits seeing it within a particular historical and ecological context. This paper historicizes particular literacy practices within the context of the development of a particular form of written Lahu. It also traces the influence of a phenomenon termed "proprietary orthographies" which permeates the ecology of literacies in mainland Southeast Asia and, I argue, has a significant impact on Lahu language literacy practices. Focusing on a subtle issue of the representation of tone, and also drawing on self-reporting of literacy, as well as making use of Keane's concept of "semiotic ideologies", I argue that orthographies enjoy a complex form of indexicality in this region which differs in small, but important, ways from other areas.

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