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Rethinking Tibeto-Burman: page 2

Discussing language and ethnicity in South and Southeast Asia, Harold Schiffman draws a useful distinction between what are historically presented as the ‘overt manifestations of “high” linguistic culture’, the codified, written and official forms, and the covert or ‘folk-cultural’ aspects which are more likely to be implicit, unstated and unofficial (1999: 431). The same conceptual distinction may be extended to Tibetan and Himalayan studies, in which Tibetan, Dzongkha and Newar comprise the former category, and ethnic groups speaking unwritten Tibeto-Burman languages make up the latter. Now that activists in many minority ethnic groups across the Himalayan region are engaged in the highly political process of re-creating or ‘inventing’ written traditions and developing scripts for their previously oral languages, and while countless rural Tibetans remain illiterate, it is apparent that we need to move towards a more nuanced understanding of what, if anything, constitutes ‘high’ and ‘low’ linguistic culture.

A further hazard in using the term ‘Tibeto-Burman speaking’ as a convenient ethnic label is that it appears to locate the peoples and groups it describes in a geographical space specifically related to Tibet or Burma. What of the minority groups in Yúnnán, Baltistan, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Spiti, who speak Tibeto-Burman languages but who may have no dealings with Tibet or Burma? It serves us well to remember that the Tibeto-Burman language family draws its name from the status of two dominant ancient literary languages, Burmese and Tibetan, and not from a field-based appraisal of contemporary linguistic distribution and diversity.

While the linguistic classification of languages as Tibeto-Burman (versus Austro-Asiatic or Indo-Aryan) is precise, the use of linguistic terminologies and models of classification to label ethnic groups is much more problematic. The construction of any group’s ethnicity cannot simply be reduced to a one-to-one correlation with their spoken language. As Joshua Fishman notes:
… the language and ethnicity link itself has also been subjected to a good deal of scrutiny and speculation, some of it going back (and still ongoing) across millennia of philosophical and scientific inquiry. Although language has rarely been equated with the totality of ethnicity, it has, in certain historical, regional and disciplinary contexts, been accorded priority within that totality. (1999: 4)
The linguistic classification of a spoken language is clearly not diagnostic for the cultural habits or ethnic worldviews of its speakers. For most ethnic groups across the Himalayas, a spoken mother tongue is but one of several important elements in the constellation of interlinked factors making up their ethnic self-image, which also include descent structures, residence patterns and religious practice.

Many publications in Nepal, in both English and Nepali, nevertheless continue to use the phrase ‘Tibeto-Burman speaking’ or even ‘Mongolian’, to attribute putative ethno-racial characteristics to communities speaking related languages. The political scientist Selma Sonntag, writing on language planning in Nepal, favours the term ‘Tibeto-Nepalese’ instead (2001: 165). While not in widespread use, this term conveys the sense that the languages spoken by the groups in question are both less than the totality of the Tibeto-Burman language family and firmly rooted within the national borders of modern Nepal.

An interesting issue emerges when organisations struggling for the upliftment of specific ethno-linguistic groupings take on, proliferate or even actively conscript the same essentialist terminology which social scientists have sought so hard to reject. Such stereotypes then insinuate themselves into ethnic communities’ own descriptions and representations of themselves as indigenous and homogenous. It becomes clear, that as linguists, social scientists and area studies scholars, we still lack an effective metalanguage for describing and categorising lived ethnolinguistic reality. As Nancy Dorian put it, we require ‘a language for talking about language’ (1999: 33).

Lessons from the Indosphere
As a relatively young discipline, Tibetology may benefit from a critical appraisal of the theories which have been formative for other area studies, specifically Indology. In India, as many have noted, language has long been intimately interwoven with the religious complexes of the subcontinent. Schiffman suggests that the most salient feature of ancient Indic linguistic culture may have been a ‘concern for the preservation of sacred texts and the purity of the language in which they were composed’ (1999: 433). This, in turn, has shaped modern Indian views towards spoken tongues, linguistic change and lexical borrowings, and has helped scholars better understand such attitudes. Prejudice towards variant linguistic forms is also attested in the Tibetan context, as noted by Nicholas Tournadre and Sangda Dorje in their introduction to the Manual of Standard Tibetan:

Many Tibetans, as well as some non-Tibetans consider that only Literary Tibetan has a true grammar. Educated Tibetans are mildly disparaging of their spoken language, which they consider “vulgar” or “ordinary” (Tib. phal-skad). Only classical Literary Tibetan is well regarded enough to be “blessed” with grammar. (2003: 26)

The sense of wonder at the elegance and sophistication of classical or literary languages is one which is shared by many observers. Sir William Jones, the great Orientalist, was alleged to have praised Sanskrit for its ‘wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either’ (de Bary 1958: 590), a sentiment echoed to this day by some textual scholars of Tibetan and Sanskrit. A result of such an approach, as so clearly noted by András Höfer, can be that scholars approach the unwritten and endangered languages spoken by Himalayan ethnic groups as deviant or ‘broken’ forms of a poorly-remembered classical language, rather than as viable linguistic varieties in their own right (2000: 234-235).

Moving on from Tibeto-Burman: the Thakali exercise in forgetting
In the remainder of this paper, I turn my focus to two ethnic communities in Nepal, the Thakali and Thangmi, who offer compelling, contrastive examples of the shifting nature of ethnolinguistic awareness and self-identification.

According to the contested Population Census of Nepal 2001, less than half of the total Thakali population of 13,000 speak Thakali, a Tibeto-Burman language, as their mother tongue (see Turin 2000 for a critique of the census). While the Thak Khola valley of lower Mustang district, Nepal, was their traditional homeland, new business and trading opportunities have resulted in mass Thakali out-migrations to urban centres and the lowlands bordering India. The declining use of the Thakali language, however, predates the shift in residence patterns and is more closely linked to the negative values associated with rural speakers of Tibeto-Burman languages and their cultural habits which emanate from the Nepali nation-state at the centre. While the Thakalis’ growing alliance with Hinduism and their concomitant turning away from shamanism and village Buddhism are well documented by anthropologists working in the Himalayas, their changing speech patterns have been rather overlooked. As early as 1958, Iijima reported that Thakalis generally did not converse in Thakali (Hutt 1986: 16), and the trend continues to the present day. Despite pleas by the Thakali Central Cultural Committee, few Thakali are making an effort to learn their language and practically no children from the community speak Thakali as a mother tongue. Nevertheless, most Thakali adults continue to believe that the existence of the Thakali language is central to their sense of a collective Thakali identity, even if they themselves do not speak the language.

While the traditional portrayal of ethnic Thakali as willing converts to the social ideology of Hinduism (Tucci 1952; Fürer-Haimendorf 1966) continues to be challenged (Fisher 1987, 2001), the fact remains that Thakali society has undergone dramatic transformation in the space of two generations. The concomitant decline of the Thakali language is generally presented by members of the Thakali community as an unfortunate by-product of the necessary urbanisation and internationalisation of the Thakali community and its growing alliance with the norms of Hindu Nepal. Critics from within the community suggest that the previous generation inadvertently threw the baby out with the bath water in that the Thakali language was jettisoned along with the cultural, dietary, religious and marital practices which were thought to be unfashionable and undesirable within the context of a rapidly modernising nation. In its present endangered state, the Thakali language has become the focus of a campaign for preservation and documentation, led in part by members of the Thakali Research Centre.

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