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Center for Southeast Asian Studies pres.

CSEAS Lecture Series. Decomposing a National Language: Pluralism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Language

John Phan, Assistant Professor, East Asian Languages & Cultures, Columbia University

By the 1930s, the Vietnamese vernacular language had unquestionably come to be viewed as the national language of Vietnam, and the primary medium of anticolonial intellectuality. Nationalist thought, which fueled the anticolonial movement, quickly settled on a narrative—patterned after French nationalism—enshrining the Vietnamese language as a kind of ancient vessel of Vietnamese identity, a thread that bound contemporary Vietnamese all the back to an imagined pre-Sinitic past. However, a closer look at both the social and linguistic history of Vietnam reveals an intensely alloyed and mosaic formation of the Vietnamese language—one intimately bound up with a form of Chinese that was also native to the region. In this talk we will explore the linguistic origins of the Vietnamese language, and discuss how these origins challenge and complicate modern nationalist conceptualizations of language and culture in Vietnam.

John Phan completed his Ph.D. at Cornell University in East Asian Literature and Linguistics. After graduating at the end of 2012, he spent two years as a JSPS post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Comparative Linguistics at the National Institute for Japanese Language & Linguistics in Tachikawa, Tokyo. Upon returning to the States, Dr. Phan taught for three years at Rutgers University, before accepting a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of Vietnamese Humanities in the Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures at Columbia University. He is currently completing his first book focusing on the history of Sino-Vietic linguistic contact, and is cocurrently working on the emergence of vernacular literary practice in medieval Vietnam. In addition to the nature of linguistic contact and broad issues in linguistic change and historical phonology, he is keenly interested in the cultural and intellectual ramifications of multiple languages coexisting in single East Asian societies, of linguistic pluralism in general, and of the transformation of oral languages into written literary mediums in historically diglossic cultures of East and Southeast Asia. His current work focuses largely on the rise of the vernacular Vietnamese script known as Chữ Nôm, and its development alongside a sustained and flourishing tradition of Literary Chinese composition.

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