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Rethinking Tibeto-Burman: page 3

Living Tibeto-Burman: the dynamism of Thangmi
Articles in the popular and academic press inform us that the world’s endangered languages are dying out. There are books devoted to language death (Crystal 2000) which attempt to find a mathematical basis for predicting the inevitable decline of indigenous and unwritten languages in the face of the juggernaut of national and international, written and official languages. This portrayal is symptomatic of a simplistic and backwards-looking fatalism which dictates that progress necessarily challenges traditional socio-linguistic life when the reality is often more complicated. There are signs of hope amidst the otherwise grim visions of language decline and extinction, as illustrated by the following example.

In contrast to the Thakali case outlined above, 19,000 of the around 30,000 ethnic Thangmi population of Dolakha and Sindhupalcok in eastern Nepal still speak their Tibeto-Burman language as a mother tongue. In many of the remote villages where Thangmi is spoken, the language is still vibrant and growing even while it is being eroded elsewhere by the widespread use of Nepali. There are numerous signs of linguistic vigour and life: new songs in the Thangmi language, Thangmi first names replacing the Hindu Krishnas and Shantis which were so prevalent among the previous generation, and Thangmi neologisms coupled with an indigenous desire to preserve oral traditions narrated in the mother tongue.

Specific examples of activities which help to reinvigorate the Thangmi language include parents giving their children names of culturally-important plants and animals, or of well known Thangmi shamans from times past, and Thangmi men and women creating new Thangmi words, such as the intentionally ironic ban-pali (friend-pl) for ‘Maoists’, or wakhe-badi (voice-box) for ‘radio’ and mesek-ban (eye-friend) for ‘spectacles’. If these neologisms catch on, and many do, they may quickly become adopted by whole hamlets of Thangmi speakers.

On the language documentation side, there are at least three Thangmi individuals pursuing dictionary projects. Their focus has been exclusively on word collection or lexicon hunting and they compete with one another, and with foreign linguists such as myself, about how many words they have collected. Some are more rigorous than others, and word counts can be artificially bolstered by incorporating a massive number of loan words from Nepali.

The real search, however, is for a script, which Thangmi language activists hope will validate their claims to antiquity and autochthony. While most Thangmi are reconciled to using a slightly modified form of the Devanagari script to write their language, and sensibly believe that they never had their own unique writing system, some of the more militant members of the community are eager to unearth any indication of a uniquely Thangmi script. It is often said that the Thangmi language once had its own script but has since lost it, a kind of fall from linguistic grace. Such a belief reflects the widespread if mistaken assumption that all ‘real’ languages were once written as well as spoken.

Indigenous languages in search of their scripts
The desire for a script is understandable from many perspectives, particularly when one bears in mind the verdict of Nepal’s National Language Policy Recommendations Commission. The Commission presented its report to the government on April 14, 1994, including a four-fold stratification of languages spoken in Nepal, ranked on the basis of having a written tradition. At the top, ranked in first position, were those languages with elaborate and well-attested written traditions, such as Nepali, Newari, Maithili, Limbu, Bhojpuri and Awadhi. In second position came languages ‘in the process of developing a written tradition’ such as Tamang, Gurung and numerous others (Sonntag 2001: 169), in third position came those languages without a written tradition, while the dying languages, such as Raute, were listed last. In this hierarchical caste-system of languages, in which script and literacy are placed as the highest units of value, it is of no surprise to learn that language development activities by ethnoactivists and language promoters commonly include the following components: ‘graphisation’ or the establishment of an orthography and spelling conventions; ‘standardisation’ which is the process of making one speech variety a ‘super-dialectal’ norm, and ‘modernisation’, the extension of the lexicon to cope with the experiences of the modern socio-linguistic world (Webster 1999: 556). All but eight of the many languages spoken in Nepal as mother tongues by indigenous peoples have no literate tradition. The lexicalisation of a language and the development, or resurrection, of a suitable script or set of orthographical conventions are prerequisites for introducing a language into education as the medium of instruction, the latter being a primary aim of many language activists.

A few general issues relating to language documentation and lexicalisation are worth noting. First, the process of standardisation required for a pedagogical grammar, textbook or dictionary necessarily results in a degree of language simplification. Just as divergent spellings of words and regional variations of speech were constrained by the standardisation of English grammar and spelling by Samuel Johnson, so too the development of writing systems for Nepal’s indigenous languages are resulting in the standardisation of the spoken language and the concurrent elevation of one speech variety or dialect to a normative position. There are at least two dialects of Thangmi, for example, and in the process of developing a suitable writing system and corpus of pedagogical materials in the language, one variety (or a synthetic mixture of both) will necessarily be promoted as standard and representative. Given the highly diverse and heterogeneous ethnolinguistic tapestry of Nepal in particular, and the Himalayan region in general, the process of linguistic standardisation can be expected to be complicated. Minority groups the world over will sooner learn a national language than they will adjust their own speech forms to resemble that of their immediate neighbours.

Second is the issue of which script to choose or whether to invent an entirely new one. Various scripts exist within Nepal, the two dominant ones being the Nepali or Devanagari script, and the Tibetan script. Other languages with attested pre-existing scripts include Newar, Limbu and Lepcha (or Lapche). Indigenous peoples speaking languages without a literate tradition have three realistic options for developing scripts: Nepali, Tibetan or devising their own one.

The advantage of the Nepali script is that it is widely recognised and understood by citizens from different ethnic backgrounds, largely on account of the growing education sector and the boom in print media post-1990. The disadvantage is that the phonetic basis of the Devanagari script imposes orthographical constraints on the sounds it is able to represent. In addition, many of the indigenous communities in Nepal who speak Tibeto-Burman languages are loath to use a script derived from Indo-Aryan languages to which their language is genetically unrelated. The ‘Nepalification’ through script or lexicon of indigenous Tibeto-Burman languages is strongly resisted by many members of the ethnic nationalities movement in Nepal.

The advantage of the Tibetan script, on the other hand, is that it derives from a language in the same language family as many of Nepal’s indigenous and unwritten Tibeto-Burman languages. Some phonological features of Nepal’s extant Tibeto-Burman languages, such as tone or breathiness, may therefore be more easily represented using the Tibetan script. At a symbolic and political level, ‘Tibetan-ness’ makes reference to a cultural heritage alternative to the dominant traditions championed by Hindu Nepal. The disadvantages of choosing the Tibetan script, however, are overwhelming. Most of Nepal’s Tibeto-Burman languages are very far removed from modern Tibetan, both in terms of grammar and phonology. Membership in the same language family in no way guarantees linguistic similarity or the applicability of one script for all languages in the category. The complex spelling rules of modern Tibetan are also entirely inapplicable to unwritten languages which have no classical literary form.

Finally, some indigenous peoples of Nepal are developing new scripts for their mother tongues. While these attempts are laudable, they are also often unrealistic given the generally poor level of educational attainment of those involved in the process and the practical challenges in disseminating new scripts (publishing outlets, computer fonts, special schools). There are few professionally-trained lexicographers or linguists among those indigenous activists working on the development of scripts or compiling language corpora for these endangered languages. The desire for a script is an understandable aspiration given the psychological link often made between script = literate tradition = classical language = recorded history = cultural authenticity and power. Many indigenous people across Nepal see the development of a script for their language as important primarily because of the status that this will accord their community on the national stage, rather than for any resulting mother tongue or bilingual education programme that may ensue.

The challenge of finding the ‘right’ script is best illustrated through an example. Tamang, one of Nepal’s most widespread ethnic languages, is spoken by over 1 million people or 5.19% of the total population of Nepal. The Nepal Tamang Ghedung, an ethnic organisation representing Tamang concerns at a national level, writes its name in three scripts: Nepali (Devanagari) for the benefit of most ethnic Tamangs who are functionally literate and have passed through the Nepali education system; a modified Tibetan script (dispensing with the complicated spelling conventions) on account of the language’s place in the Tibeto-Burman language family and also because a growing number of Tamang Buddhists are versed in the Tibetan script; and English for its international audience. Such a tri-scriptural approach, while catering to all parties, is clearly pragmatically unworkable as a long term solution.

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