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Rethinking Tibeto-Burman: page 4

Conclusion: a plea for nuance
My focus in this short article on the need for precise terminology for describing and analysing Himalayan cultural diversity is intended as a cautionary reminder that ethnic and linguistic categories should not be conflated. While scholars and activists across the Himalayas are addressing the standardisation and documentation of unwritten languages, there is insufficient discussion about the social and political implications of choosing one script over another to represent endangered spoken forms. Recognising that many minority language communities have accepted the idea that a ‘proper’ language must be written, I have focussed on the motivations which inform decisions for or against the use of certain scripts in the representation of these languages.

Dictionaries of endangered languages will be valuable both as records of the cultural wealth of their speakers and as useable resources for language acquisition. While it is likely that many of Nepal’s minority languages will be reduced from communicative vernaculars to markers of symbolic identity within a generation, this tragic loss should not overshadow language revival activities such as those described above for Thangmi. The cultural values and political valences attached to languages, rather like linguistic forms themselves, are dynamic and changing. As scholars, we would do well to recognise this and to develop analytical tools which are robust and yet flexible enough to make sense of shifting ethnolinguistic identities.

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