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This is part of a series on the supposed death of nushu, considered to be the only language in the world spoken exclusively by women.

So, Western academics have largely declared nushu a dead language. Language death is a major concern right now, with the number of languages in use drying up at a rate of about one every two weeks, last I knew. There’s no consensus as to what precisely constitutes language death. Some people think that it’s when there are only a certain number of speakers, some think that it’s when a conversation cannot be held (necessitating two speakers), and some think language death occurs when a last speaker dies. The last idea is what has largely held in nushu’s case, with Yang Huanyi’s 2004 death. Which, of course, ignores the existence of remaining speakers, not to mention the acceptance of that definition of language death, but we’ll get back to that.

With a dwindling presence, and routinely treated as a 1980s academic discovery, nushu falls into the narrative of the dying minority culture that is discovered by outsiders. You’ll notice that minority cultures are never allowed to “discover” themselves or other cultures. This narrative, as we all know, has a long history in Western scholarship. Jyotsna G. Singh wrote about this in Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues: “Discoveries” of India in the language of colonialism: ‘By frequently drawing on the idea of discovery, the British gained a privileged epistemological position, whereby as “discoverers” they could claim new knowledge’. And that really captures it, doesn’t it? In that case as in this, the “discovery” narrative suppresses and surpasses any social power the speakers themselves might otherwise have to “discover” or circulate knowledge of their own culture. The discovery-then-death framing means that positioning nushu as dead shores up academics’ critical authority and power at the expense of speakers’.

That’s not the only reason that the death narrative is suspect. As I alluded to above, multiple stories of nushu’s death proliferate. While academics generally date nushu’s death to 2004, it’s also been dated to the suppression of minority cultures during the Cultural Revolution. And there are those academics who acknowledge that other speakers still exist, although they tend to frame them as elderly speakers who will soon leave nushu dead. (Apparently new speakers can’t learn, or something.) In the absence of a common date, the only consistent trend in the Western academic study of nushu is the insistence on its death.

Even if we were to accept the discovery narrative on its own terms, it is clear that the information history of nushu has not been “discovered” thoroughly enough by English-speaking academics. To accept the idea of death towards which the narrative leans, one must accept insufficient scholarship as well as a sensibility that weirdly plays into colonialist ideas. You get scholars complaining that they don’t have enough sources to write a proper history because they don’t see manuscripts. Well, leaving aside the fact that there are in fact many remaining manuscripts, as I’ll talk about in a later post, interviews with living speakers would be a pretty good start on the source front. The valuation of academic authority through the discovery narrative is powerful enough that the main sources of information, from the living speakers, are not considered of academic use. They’re not allowed to speak or exist in the literature if it interferes with outsiders’ ideas about their culture.

Were non-Western cultural norms, terms, and knowledges recognised as having continuing value in the study of language history, the death narrative would not have such social and academic power. The popularity with academics of narratives of discovery and language death itself creates the death through not allowing for narratives with less social weight.