A brief news item on January 13, 《达斡尔语辞典》征求专家修订意见, informs us that a meeting was recently held at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences where experts were invited to discuss revising the existing 《达斡尔语辞典》, a dictionary of the Daur language. It took more than three decades to compile, and a contact of mine tells me it was originally published by Harbin Publishing House (哈尔滨出版社).
According to Wikipedia, Daur is a Mongolic language with 96,000 native speakers in China as of 1999.
This project is just one of many started or completed since 2011 for dictionaries involving non-Han languages. For background on some of the others, see French-Buyi Dictionary Dogged by Concerns over Political Correctness; Premier Tibetan-Chinese Legal Dictionary; Chinese-Lahu Dictionary; Miao-Han Dictionary, and Rejuvenating the Tujia Language. Read a few of them of these items and you’ll be reminded that language—or in this case—language reference tools such as dictionaries, can be rather political.
Curiously, the news item states that Daur “has no written script (无文字),” which begs the question: then how did they compile the dictionary? The definitions are given in Chinese, it says, but the Daur words must obviously be noted in some form.
Over the centuries, various scripts for Daur have drawn on both Mongolian—which would seem to make sense linguistically, given it is a Mongolic tongue—and Manchu during the Qing Dynasty. But in post-1949 China, national policy has strongly promoted the use of Latin letters for languages that do not possess a widely used traditional script.
And sure enough, the dictionary reportedly employs the same set of Latin letters that constitute the Hanyu Pinyin alphabet used to transliterate Mandarin. Designated 达斡尔语记音符号, this solution—not officially recognized by the authorities, apparently—is said to accommodate all the sounds of Daur without any additional letters or symbols. A long vowel sound, for instance, is conveyed simply by repeating the vowel, e.g., aa.
The news item doesn’t report on what was discussed at the meeting. One item on the agenda may have been how to agree a script and gain official recognition for it. But given the politics of language in today’s PRC, I’d say it is highly unlikely that any proposals based on Mongolian scripts—vertical or Cyrillic—are in the pipeline.