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Preserving the Indigenous Languages

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Welcoming the linguistic provisions in the Interim Draft Constitution, BABU RAM FYUBA and PRABHAT KIRAN KOIRALA argue that Globalization should not be a barrier to the preservation of indigenous languages.

Indigenous languages in Nepal have survived thousands of years, despite systematic governmental coercion, favor of one over the others, and other challenges. But lately, there is a palpable hope that the varied and many linguistic communities will soon enjoy full recognition by the state. That may help to revive dying indigenous languages as well as foster and preserve others.

The Interim Draft Constitution (2006) released recently is categorical about the new arrangement. IDC’s part 1, section 5, clause 1-3 assert that all languages spoken in Nepal are national languages; Nepali language written in Devanagari script—until recently as the only national language in practice—will serve as the official language; locally government offices can use any mother tongue as means of communication.

It is not that the Constitution of 1990 did not recognize all the languages spoken (the mother tongue in the various parts of Nepal) as the national languages of Nepal. It did. However, that constitution did not recognize national languages other than Nepali as the official language of communication. But at the practical level, that did not bar local bodies such as Kathmandu Municipality to use Nepal Bhasa (Newari) as a means of official communication, along with Nepali.

Another radical departure in the IDC is that Nepali language many no longer be a necessity to citizenship for foreign nationals. The Constitution of 1990 (Part II, Section 4, Clause A) says that the acquisition of citizenship of Nepal by a foreigner may be regulated by law which may, inter alia, require (among other criteria) that he can speak and write the language of the nation of Nepal. That provision is conspicuously absent in the IDC.

The Constitution of 1990 did not grant an equal legal rights to national languages. Part 3, Section 11, Clause 2 says that no discrimination shall be made against any citizen in the application of general laws on grounds of religion (dharma), race (varna), sex (linga), caste (jât), tribe (jâti) or ideological conviction (vaicârik) or any of these. Part 3, Section 11, Clause 3 says the State shall not discriminate among citizens on grounds of religion, race, sex, caste, tribe, or ideological conviction or any of these. In both clauses, it is silent on the issue of language. The IDC, Part 3, Clause 2 edifies on that lacking. It not only includes language (bhasa) but also origin (utpati). Similarly, IDC, Part 3, Clause 3 also includes provisions for origin and language, among other rights.

The IDC (Part 3, Section 18, Clause 3), similar to the Constitution of 1990 (Constitution of 1990, Part 3, Section 18, Clause 1) declares that each community residing within the Kingdom of Nepal shall have the right to preserve and promote its language, script and culture. However, the most striking improvement on the last constitution is the assertion that each community will have a right to education in their own mother language (IDC, Part 3, Section 18, and Clause 1). This provision was absent in the Constitution of 1990.

While there is a lot to discuss about how exactly the right to education in mother languages will be implemented, the new provision provides some energy to re-examine the problems and issues of the languages of Nepal.

Fear of Extinction
According to Ethnologue (2005), a global record of languages, Nepal currently has as many as 126 living languages. That is a huge figure for a country with a total area of only 147,181 sq km—over 22 times smaller than India (which has 415 living languages), and over 65 times smaller than China (236 living languages) or USA (162 living languages).

Compare that to the dead (extinct) languages in each of the above countries: At least 3 of Nepal’s languages are extinct-- Dura, formerly spoken in Lamjung District, Kusunda (Tanahu District, western hills, Satto Bhatti west of Chepetar, and possibly jungle south of Ambhu. Kireni, near Kumhali), and Waling (Bhojpur District). Ethnologue also lists 13 extinct lanagues for India, 1 for China and 73 for the United States of America.

Clearly, the fear that other indigenous languages may become extinct is a legitimate fear. Although Nepali, spoken by almost half of the entire population of 20.6 million people, and other major languages such as Maithali (12.1%), Bhojpuri (7.4%), Tharu or Dagaura/Rana (5.8%), Tamang (5.1%), Newar (3.6%) may not be facing an immediate extinction, more than 100 other less-known languages are.

More than 92 small ethnic groups (tribes/indigenous) are exists in Nepal today. Most of them live in hilly areas. But some of them live in low land areas. Most of them have their own culture and languages.

Languages die as human beings do. Linguists can easily accept human death but they don't easily take the death of languages. Because, if we try, it may be possible to salvage endangered or even the almost dead languages. A language is considered as clinically dead, when the last speaker of the language has died and there is no one alive to speak the language. When a language is dead, its culture heritage and tradition also become dead. So we may not like to see the death of any language.

According to the American Summer Institute of Linguistics there are about 6,000 living languages in the world. ASIL expects that almost half of them will disappear over the next century. ASIL also reports that there are 51 languages with only one speaker left. The interesting fact is that each of the 3,000 languages (half of all world languages) is spoken by people fewer than 10,000. And 96% languages of the world is used by only 4% people of the entire world.

In an article (“Death Sentence,” the Guardian, October 25, 1999), David Crystal, a professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, stated that 3,000 languages will die within 21st century and in average, 25 languages die every year. To respond to such a trend against linguistic diversity, some institutes have been formed in America, Germany, Japan and Britain. For example, in Britain, the Foundation for Endangered Languages helps to support efforts in the preservation of endangered languages in poor countries of the Third World where people continue to struggle for daily survival and lack the necessary resources for linguistic preservation.

The number of people speaking a particular language is shrinking rather fast. Of the 51 languages spoken by one member of the particular linguistic group, 28 are in Australia. The earlier edition of Ethnologue (2001) also notes that between 10 to 99 people speak 302 languages, between 100 to 1,000 speak 1,075; between 10,000 to 100,000 speak 1,605. Similarly, 239 languages are spoken by 10, 00,000 to 1, 00, 00,000 people and 9 languages are spoken by up to 10, 00, 00,000 people.

It does not mean that large countries have more languages. A small country with geographically and culturally diverse and disconnected in terms of communication may have more languages than a huge country with uniform geography or culture and good communication infrastructure. Larger countries like China and India do consist of many languages. So do Papua New Guinea, which has more than 800 languages and Indonesia, with more than 700 languages.

These small countries consist of many languages, many of them minority languages, which soon turn into endangered languages, mainly due to domination of official language. Other causes are domination of less-widespread cultures by pervasive ones, natural calamities that often sweep away large sections of a linguistic community, and economical condition of a particular community, etc. In the Mediaeval age some languages turned into endangered language because of modernization efforts via Latin or Greek. In modern times, language became endangered due to colonialism, onslaught of new technology, and globalization. These developments have helped advanced civilizations to dominate the languages of the retreating civilizations. For example, in Nepal, Sanskrit language is dominated by Nepali and in West Bengal of India, Bangla is threatened by Hindi.

The Nepali Scenario
No doubt, there are as many languages in Nepal as there are tribes. These tribal people are varied in terms of their ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic characteristics. Here is a partial chart (Census Report 2001), which shows some of the main minority languages that still exist. These are not considered as endangered languages but the fear is that they may be endangered within next 25-30 years.

Major Minority Languages of Nepal





















































On the other hand, Kusunda, Raute, Bote, Yholmo, Sangpang etc., with a population under 5,000 and in some cases, under 100, are already endangered languages. Other such linguistic communities include Ghale, Chiling, Sanskrit, Kaike, etc. According to the population census report 2001 more than 36 indigenous languages of Nepal are now endangered because of their extremely small population. For example, the census (numbers are for language speakers) records this: Kusunda (87), Lhomi (04), Lingkhim (97), Kagte (10), Kuki (9), Raute (518), and Kaike (794).

According to the census report 2001, more than ten indigenous languages of Nepal are now endangered because of their small population. Most of the indigenous people are bilingual in Nepal. Some of them (Like the Tamangs) are multilingual. They use their language at home but when they are outside their own linguistic family or communities, they rely on Nepali language for their socio-economic and educational transactions.

The educational system does not provide training in indigenous languages, so people from such communities have to learn Nepali, the national link language, or English, the international link language. Except one or two indigenous languages, they don't have scripts to express their emotion and thinking in the written form. The Tamangs, for instance, had their own script called 'Sambhota'. Also, many indigenous languages do have their own traditional folk literature. To express oral literature and traditions, today some indigenous linguistic communities, such as the Tamangs, are using the Nepali (Devanagari) script. The loss of original scripts is perhaps the major signpost of the process of extinction.

This is an upsetting scenario specially because the lack of scripts also means the lack of historical records or a means to the preservation of linguistic tradition. Take the example of the Austric language (Austro-Asiatic), whose sub families still exist in India, such as Punjabi. Though the vocabulary of the ancient Austric language was rich, it never developed its own script. So we cannot get any literary document of the Austric language.

Anthropologists have unearthed other evidences regarding ancient languages and their modern descendants. Four nations— Nigrito (In India, long abolished), Austric, Dravidian, and Mongol or Kirat— are believed to have lived in South Asia before the arrival of Aryans some 2000 B.C. The present tribes of Nepal are included in Austric and Mongol group. The Dravidians are the speaker of Tamil, Telegu, Kanari, and Malayam in India. Most probably, Newars and Tamangs lived in this country before the arrival of the Aryans. And, they had their own languages independent of Central Asian or South European influences.

Modern linguists argue that our tribal (indigenous) languages originated from the Austric and Sano-Tibetan language family. Tamang, Sherpa and Gurung languages came from Tibeto-Burman Language sub family. Linguist G. A. Grierson identifies these two groups as Meitheis and Chin. Meithei stands for Manipuri, a tribal language spoken predominantly in the Indian state of Manipur. Chin covers linguistics communities such as Kuki, another indigenous language spoken in northeastern India (Linguistic Survey of India volume III part III, Delhi, 1967).

The exact date of the arrival of Austric language in India is not known. But linguists believe that the Austrics are more ancient than any other language family in India. The speaker of Austric language family lived across the world, despite the fact that there were fewer speakers of this language as compared to other contemporary languages. Speakers still live in places as diverse as Madagascar of Africa, Easter Island in the South Pacific, New Zealand, Punjab in India, Australia, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The Austric language eventually influenced many South Asian languages, including Nepali.

According to linguist Porimal Chandra Mitra, the Austric language family can also be divided into many sub-families. In India the variants of Koll or Munda language prevailed. The Koll nation is known as the aborigines of India. They lived in India before the Dravidians. Indian civilization is essentially a mixture of the aborigines, the Dravidian, and the Aryan (see Porimal Chandra Mitra, Saotal Vhasha: Vitti O Sambhabana, 1985).

The rich amalgamation of different cultures and languages is evident in Nepal, too. The Tamang language, for instance, is a variant of the Tibetan language. Sherpa, Gurung Yholmo and Thakali are also included in this group. Munda, the Austroasiatic language family, and Sanskrit influenced indegenenous lanagues, such as Chantyal, and even Nepali, and vice versa. Another is the 'Sino-Tibetan' (also called Bhote-China or Tibeto-Burmese) language family, which includes many tribal languages of Nepal, such as Tamang, Yholmo and Sherpa. The Tibeto-Burmese languages are regarded rich and well-developed and some, such as Newari and Manipuri, have many ancient literary documents.

For linguistic communities, such as Tamangs and Gurungs, who do not have written documents, it is often difficult to explore the roots of these languages. Although we many know their origins (Tibeto-Burmese), linguists’ study of their morphological and phonological characteristics does not provide sufficient insight into the many historical alterations of the languages. Only a timely preservation or written records of the language communities and their experiences can help provide answers to such questions

What To Do?
For too long, Nepal’s indigenous languages have suffered discrimination and domination from the State as well as other dominant language communities. The ICD’s provision of the right to education in one’s own mother tongue is a welcome step. The granting of equal legal rights to the practice of all national languages is another significant development.

Languages are made by human beings so that they can communicate in the way they like to communicate. It is a democratic means. One may argue that it is a historical reality in this age of globalization that not all languages will survive, especially those with few speakers, even with the utmost efforts by the speakers themselves. But that does not negate the fact that such communities do have the right to practice their languages. No community may want to see one’s language dead. When a language is dead, a community’s cultural heritage and tradition are also dead.

In Nepal, one hopes, the proposed Constituent Assembly will adopt and strengthen all the above positive provisions. But mere provisions will not satisfy the wishes and aspirations of scores of Nepal’s linguistic communities, who look forward to teaching their kids the mother tongues in their local schools. The implications are that the practical works are enormous, demanding a fair system of institutional support, new breed of teachers and a new pool of resources. That is our small gift to posterity.

Mr. Fyuba and Mr. Korala both hold Master's degrees in Sociology from Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu. They are interested in the areas of ethnicity and social change.


Very excellent

it is very nice story.

>> it is a historical reality in this age of globalization that not all languages will survive, especially those with few speakers, even with the utmost efforts by the speakers themselves. But that does not negate the fact that such communities do have the right to practice their languages. No community may want to see one’s language dead. When a language is dead, a community’s cultural heritage and tradition are also dead.

I agree with your above assertion that few languages will survive in the future. Just look at how English has become a norm in our schools— even in the remotest parts of the country you can see “boarding schools” hoisting the angreji flags. Even the most conservative of Nepalis now believe that the secret to success in modern world is English language. We are not a former colony of Britain, but today there are many Nepali families, specially in sahari areas who speak nothing but English. In the long term, commercial imperatives (success in life) will destroy even the most widespread languages in the country like Nepali or Maithili. Why study many local languages when it is much more profitable to study international languages such as Spanish or Japanese or German or Chinese?

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