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Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
China's women-only language under threat
Ethnic Yao farmers picking tea
The secret language is only spoken by elder women
China plans to spend $1m to save what is believed to be the world's only language used exclusively by women.

The language, on the verge of extinction, is spoken only by elder women of the Yao ethnic group in Hunan province.

Some linguists say the language may be one of the oldest in the world.

Now China plans to set up a special protection zone and a museum in Hunan province's Jiangyong county.

The Xinhua news agency says the museum will house written examples of the language, which has 1,200 characters, though fewer than 700 are still in use.

Experts believe much of the language's written heritage, mainly preserved on paper fans and silks, has already been destroyed.

Dr Zhang Xiasheng, of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, says the language was handed down from mothers to daughters and developed in cut-off rural areas.

Men were not interested in the secret coded-language, he says.

A publishing house in Hunan is putting together a dictionary covering the language's history and the pronunciation, meaning and written style of its characters.

According to China's People's Daily, the Yao ethnic group has a total population of 2.9 million.

See also:

08 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
UN warns over indigenous tongues
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