Schweizerische Gesellschaft
für bedrohte Sprachen

Fieldwork in west Myanmar (Zo)
August–September 2019

Yue Yuan

Map of Zo
This report is based on a 5-week field trip (August 16- September 21) to west Myanmar where I collected data of Zo language for my Master thesis in linguistics. Zo language (usually called as Zolai or Zopau by local speakers, meaning the written or spoken Zo language; or sometimes referred to as Tedim Chin in related publications), belongs to the Kuki-Chin subgroup of Tibeto-Burman language. It is spoken in northern Chin State and Sagaing Region of Myanmar, as well as in Manipur and Mizoram of Northeast India. People who speak Zo are Zomi ‘Zo people’, an ethnic group sharing a common identity and spreading throughout the northeastern states of India, northwestern Myanmar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The whole mountainous region where Zo people live today is often called as Zogam ‘Land of Zo’. In Myanmar, Zo is mostly spoken by Zomi community in Chin State and Sagaing region, and the speakers are largely Christian, due to the colonial regime under Britain in 19th and early 20th century.

Zomi Theological Seminary sunset glow after a heavy rain
Zomi Theological Seminary in Kalay (left) and sunset glow after a heavy rain (right)

Zolai or Zopau is used in daily life among Zo communities, although it is not officially taught at government schools. Almost all local speakers are bilingual: they use Zo at home and at local Christian churches, and learn Burmese at schools. Zo language is less documented because of the lack of a standard orthography in the whole linguistic area and also due to the increasing influence of Burmese language nationwide. Related research in recent years is mainly focused on the whole Kuki-Chin branch level, and Zo language as a specific case is less studied by now.

Zo students Zo speaker
Working with students (left) and a local speaker (right)

During the fieldwork, I spent most time in Kalay township in Sagaing Region next to Chin State, working with language consultants residing there and analyzing the collected data. About one week in total was spent on trips to other Zo-speaking areas. In the field trips, I collected very useful data in Kalay township and Chanthagyi village in Sagaing Region, and also Tedim township and Cikha village in Chin Hills, representing a large portion of the Zomi settlement in west Myanmar. The interviews, elicitations and transcriptions were mainly done with the help of students and staff members of Zomi Theological Seminary in Kalay and supported by Zomi Baptist Convention of Myanmar (ZBCM).

Tedim township young speakers in Chanthagyi village
Tedim township in Chin Hills (left) and young speakers in Chanthagyi village (right)

For my master thesis, I focus on the grammatical relations of Zo with an overview of its grammar. Zo is a tonal language with two mutually exclusive preverbal and post-verbal agreement systems, different from other Kuki-Chin languages which usually have one. For example, the two sentences below both mean ‘I ate the food’ in Zo.

glossed language example

This fieldwork was quite successful overall and I really enjoyed the time at the field sites. The Zo people were very nice and supported me a lot for my study. I got chances working with speakers of different ages from various places, which was very helpful for me to collect useful data.