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I'm soon crossing the Lao/China border and after gaining some familiarity with Lao in my capacity as an "armchair linguist on the road" I'm very interested in experiencing some Zhuang language before I head further north in China.

Wikipedia has some articles on the Zhuang languages generally, and on specific Zhuang languages including a Standard Zhuang.

But what I'm ideally looking for is some kind of introduction to Zhuang intended for people with some knowledge of the better known Tai national languages of Thailand and Laos. I'd prefer something based on the Lao language but perhaps something comparing to the Thai language is more likely and this would also be acceptable to me.

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For Zhuang, the entry by Luo Yongxian in the Routledge language family series for the Tai-Kadai languages is a good overview. The Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development at Mahidol University in Bangkok, in conjunction with one of the ethnic minority universities in China, has also produced a multilingual dictionary for one variety of Zhuang – it has Northern Zhuang, Chinese, Thai and English arranged in columns for easy comparison. The title is simply NZ… Dictionary, published in 2006. It lacks a real grammar overview, but it would complement Luo well. It’s part of a series of five volumes covering the different Tai languages spoken in China.

There’s an orthographic convention for Zhuang that is worth knowing at the outset – tone is indicated with final consonants. For example, the word ‘boux’ is pronounced [pou] with the ‘x’ indicating 33 tone. (This word, meaning ‘male’ or a classifier for people, is cognate with Thai ผู้ .) Hmong uses a similar system, I believe.

I am wondering a bit about the geography of your travels. I would assume you will be crossing into Yunnan province, but Zhuang is mainly spoken in Guangxi, the next province over which borders on Vietnam. There is an area of Yunnan where Zhuang is spoken called Wenshan, but most of the Tai language speakers in Yunnan speak something else. In Sipsongbanna, which is where you’d be if you crossed at Botan, one of the major languages is Tai Lue. A missionary linguist named William Hanna recently published a ‘Dai Lue-English Dictionary’ with Silkworm Books which looks quite good. It seems to contain some general linguistic background on the language besides the dictionary entries, and it uses the distinctive script of Tai Lue.

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    Yes I made an assumption that it would be Zhuang here (I'm now in Mengla) because my Googling didn't really resolve it. It was based on a guesstimate due to being near the Lao border and having read that Zhuang is the biggest or second biggest minority language in China, even though trying to research that turned up that it's actually a bunch of languages and dialects plus an artificial standard. And this would mean more research material available. Now that I'm here though I see bilingual signs everywhere that I assume are in Tai Lue, which I knew had its own script. – hippietrail Oct 29 '13 at 4:37
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    If you keep going to Kunming, you could visit the Nationalities Park (mínzú cūn) to learn about the non-Han minorities of Yunnan. The Dongba pictograms of the Naxi in Lijiang are fascinating, if you get that far (from there, 2-3 hours further travel brings you to the Tibetan cultural region.) Of course, these aren’t Tai groups, but interesting nonetheless. – neubau Oct 29 '13 at 14:42
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    For background on Zhuang language policy in China, I’d check Katherine Kaup’s ‘Creating the Zhuang’ – there’s quite a lot in the Google books preview. Guangxi is an ‘autonomous region’ for the Zhuang, so you’d see bilingual signs there too, I believe. – neubau Oct 30 '13 at 4:36

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