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A Themed Selection of Wa Proverbs and Sayings

From: Journal of Burma Studies
Volume 17, Number 1, June 2013
pp. 29-60 | 10.1353/jbs.2013.0001

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Writing about Lahu proverbs and sayings, James Matisoff (2011: 303) remarks that comparative work on proverbial wisdom in a variety of Tibeto-Burman languages would be fascinating. The Wa material here is presented in such a way to allow direct comparison with Lahu as a small first contribution toward such a comparison. Like Lahu, Wa is very much within the Sinosphere, and all the Wa material presented here has come to light through Chinese sources, as did much of the Lahu data assembled by Matisoff (2011).

SOAS Wa Dictionary Project

This collection of Wa proverbs and sayings was assembled as part of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) Wa Dictionary Project, which sought to develop a dictionary translating some 12,000 Wa etyma into a Burmese, Chinese and English Dictionary with data fields including Wa orthographical variants, Burmese, Chinese and English glosses, compounds, example phrases and some basic etymological and syntactic information for each. The dictionary originally had generous funding from the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (to whom due gratitude is hereby expressed) for three years from 2003 to 2006. Following the end of the manpower the funding purchased, notably the extraordinarily focused and energetic efforts of Richard Kunst, the slow process of preparing the final manuscript continued single-handed, dragged down by the editor’s other commitments, and the gradual descent into obsolescence of the online version of the dictionary. Happily, publication of the printed dictionary (Watkins, forthcoming) is now a real likelihood in the very near future, and soon after that the data will be available again online somewhere in searchable form.

The original motivation for the dictionary was to produce a Wa language resource of general usefulness, following some years pursuing the esoteric but elegant details of Wa acoustic phonetics, written up as Watkins (2002). In addition, it seemed and seems desirable to make available in Burmese and in English some of the information on Wa which exists only in Chinese, in order to shed light on the Wa especially in Burma, where some two-thirds of the million or so Wa people live, but where general ignorance of their language and origins can lead to misunderstanding.

There is much to gain in terms of linguistic and cultural knowledge by studying Wa. According to Gérard Diffloth (1980), one of the small group of Mon-Khmer comparative linguists in the world, and the compiler of a large database of Mon-Khmer languages, a study of the lexicon of the Wa language is particularly important because Wa can inform us about a very ancient linguistic state of affairs in the Southern Yunnan and Northern Shan State region, before the arrival of the currently dominating populations who speak Tai, Tibeto-Burman, and Chinese languages.

The SOAS Wa Dictionary Project amassed and digitized a significant collection of printed Wa language materials, mostly published in China using a roman alphabet orthography first conceived in China in the 1950s and further developed in subsequent decades. That included Wa material using the other variety of Wa orthography first devised by Vincent Young who oversaw the first Wa translation of the New Testament. The two orthographies can be seen side by side with an explanation of the differences between them in Watkins (2002); the Chinese-developed orthography is the one in which the proverbs in this article appear.

The major lexicographical source from which the SOAS Wa Dictionary Project grew was Yan et al. (1981). This work provided a very useful start, albeit somewhat idiosyncratic and very much of its time, influenced heavily by the Communist doctrine of the Cultural Revolution from which China was only just starting to recover. The books collected for the SOAS Wa Dictionary Project included school readers, a few dozen books on topics such as cultural traditions and customs, agriculture, Wa herbal medicine, folktales, history, and Chinese politics; the entire digitized corpus represents some 7,000 printed book pages.

Loux Gāb Vax

The source of all but a few of the Wa proverbs and sayings presented here is Loux Gāb Vax (Wang et al. 1992), a remarkable collection of some 4,000 sayings, idioms, proverbs and epithets...

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