Linguistic Dynamism in South Asia

B. K. Rana bk_rana at YAHOO.COM
Thu Mar 3 22:20:31 UTC 2005


-         B.  K. Rana


               The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is one of the linguistically diverse countries in South Asia and is a home for different peoples who speak different languages, adhere to different religions, practice different cultures and live in harmony forming distinct identities among themselves from the ages. Spoken as lingua franca by nearly 20 million people, Nepali is the first language of 48.61% of total population of 22,736,934 [2001] and also the national language of Nepal. Except for Burushaski, a language isolate which is still spoken north of Gilgit in Hunja, a remote part of northern Pakistan at the border of China; languages of the world�s major language families as: Indo-European, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan and Austro-Asiatic families are spoken in Nepal. There are at least three native speakers of Kusunda[1] which is a very unique language used to be spoken in the central hills of Nepal some 30 years ago.

               Nepali falls into Indo-European family of languages. It has much closer affinity with Hindi and Sanskrit. However, there are script differences between Hindi and Urdu, they also have much closer affinities. Hindi is spoken almost by half a billion people as their mother tongue in India only. Millions others speak either Hindi or Urdu both in India and Pakistan. These two major South Asian languages are spoken among the Indian population across South and East Africa. People in Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius and Fiji also speak Hindi.

               Some people who have migrated to USA, Canada and United Kingdom also speak either Hindi or Urdu. The Hindi-Urdu community comprises one of the largest speech communities in the world. Scholars as well as language activists of India are prescribing Hindi in a broader national context as well as global perspective to play a major role and assert the existence of Hindi as a world language.

               Likewise, a perceivable portion of speakers in Hong Kong, Burma and England speaks Nepali also. It is spoken by a larger mass of population in different provinces of India. It is therefore, the government of India has recognized Nepali as one of its 18 state languages, which is used in schools and in office materials also.  The recognition of Nepali as an official language in 1988 by the government of India was a major event for Nepalese linguistic communities to assert their linguistic rights. In this paper I will attempt to offer some insights into recent linguistic dynamism in Nepal from South Asian perspective where language communities are asserting their linguistic and cultural rights for development.  Language issue has been one of the vital issues since a couple of decades in Nepal.

Growth of Nepali as National Language amongst Linguistic Diversity

               Along with the rise of Gorkha Kingdom[2] in 1768, the state had to promote Hindu Culture and Nepali Language to unify the country with a policy of one language and one culture. National policy as such could have relative importance in those days. It could ease the process of unification of scattered small principalities into a greater sovereign nation. Nepal has always remained an independent nation in South Asia. Since the founding of Gorkha Kingdom, Nepali has become the national language of Nepal and general identity of Nepalese people. There is a vast literary treasure in Nepali - government papers, educational materials, newspapers etc. are published in Nepali language.

               It is still a matter of discussion as to how many languages are spoken in Nepal. Since, linguistic survey of Nepal has not been carried out until today, only it was lightly discussed by academic circles a couple of years ago; nothing can be said on how many languages are spoken in Nepal. Language data tend to differ from one entity to another and an author to another. As many as 48 different languages have been enumerated in the population census report of 1991. The National Language Policy Advisory Commission [1993] in its report mentions that there are 70 different languages in Nepal of whom 20 are the endangered ones. The report also cites Kusunda as a dead language. But, a number of 87 Kusundas [males 37 females 50] have been reported speaking Kusunda as their first language in the recent national population census report.  According to the population census report [2001] there are 99 different caste, ethnic and two other unidentified groups of peoples who speak 93
 different languages as their mother tongues in Nepal. An Ethnologue report [2000] is that there are 128 different languages in Nepal.

               In Nepal the larger number of different languages falls in Sino-Tibetan language family. The speakers of Sino-Tibetan languages are mostly indigenous by their origin. They are remotely settled, fewer in number, economically disadvantaged, socio-politically weaker and unrepresented or under represented to the national life. Situation as such has led to an intense language endangerment in Nepal. After the restoration of democracy in 1990 and also by the concerns of United Nations about the indigenous peoples in the world, different language communities in Nepal have begun to preserve their languages. They have even begun to develop their own scripts, vocabulary, dictionary, grammar and literature etc.

Establishment of Mahendra Sanskrit University for Revival of Sanskrit language

To preserve and promote Sanskrit education in different sectors of Nepalese society and also develop the Kingdom of Nepal into a center for teaching and learning through Sanskrit, the government of Nepal established Mahendra Sanskrit University in December 1986. The university was opened amidst a sharp decline in Sanskrit language in the country. No speaker of Sanskrit has been enumerated in national population census reports. This is an indication that Sanskrit is not spoken as the first language in Nepal. Indeed the great teachings of Rshi Munis[3] of the early centuries, possibly even before the Greeks, are inscribed in Sanskrit language. The Vedas, Upanishads, Smritis, and the much loved philosophy by Hindus � the Bhagbat Gita etc. are written in Sanskrit. Whether Sanskrit is spoken by its speakers or not it has an immense impact upon not only Nepalese social life but upon the much greater mass of population in India also.

The greatness of  Sanskrit language is unquestionable, however, in recent decades, it has faced sharp criticism from among the indigenous language communities of Nepal. These communities have designated Sanskrit as a dead language. They blame the government to have wasted wealth over a �dead language� and standing unresponsive towards the demands of language communities to preserve their �living languages�. There is a kind of tug-of-war between two groups of intellectuals who either favor the promotion of  Sanskrit language or other indigenous languages. Sometimes Sanskrit is made compulsory subject in schools and sometimes optional, depending on what type of government is functioning in the country. However, Sanskrit is not spoken as the first language by the general public; it is not a dead language. There is an ample opportunity for Sanskrit to become revitalized as native language of certain group of people in the country. It is like English, which is also not spoken as the first
 language in Nepal.

Indigenous Peoples� Movement for Linguistic and Cultural Rights

               The indigenous ethnic peoples are nowadays known as Janajatis[4] of Nepal. Before the restoration of democracy in 1990, right to freedom of speech or expression was unavailable in the country. Naturally in those days, it was very difficult in founding a social organization that could spell out fundamental rights of the people. However, Padma Ratna Tuladhar had been able to found �Nepal Bhasha Manka Khala� - an organization for the preservation and promotion of Newar[5] language and culture in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal and other two activists Suresh Ale and Parshu Ram Tamang had also started underground-advocacy for linguistic and cultural rights by forming �Nepal Langhali Association� from among the Magars[6] and �Nepal Tamang Ghedung� - an organization of the Tamangs[7] respectively in the mid-seventies. Parshu Ram Tamang could present Nepal�s indigenous peoples� issues to the outer world including the United Nations� different forums in recent times.

               As soon as democracy was restored in the country, these three indigenous peoples� advocates together with other five indigenous peoples� organizations became able to found an organization - �Nepal Federation of Nationalities�[8] in mid 1990 and Suresh Ale was elected  Secretary-General of the newly founded federation. This was a landmark achievement in the indigenous peoples� movement of Nepal. The federation vigorously publicized and lobbied for inclusion of linguistic and cultural rights of indigenous peoples in the Constitution, which was being drafted  by a commission formed by the government of Nepal. As a result of which some of the recommendations from indigenous peoples� sector have been incorporated in the constitution.

               After the restoration of democracy and also the promulgation of Constitution of Nepal in November 1990 there was an open atmosphere in Nepalese academic community. Krishna Bahadur Bhattachan, began critical advocacy louder and clearer than ever before for social reforms in the country. Consulting with some other experts and activists, he classified 61 Janajatis of Nepal and also offered a definition for them. The government recognized only 58 Janajatis by enacting an act sometime later. However, Bhattachan�s arguments for social reforms have facts and foundations, the conservative school of Nepal, as anticipated, shows strong displeasure in them. Out of his enumeration, a number of 16 Janajatis[9] are not enumerated in the national population census report of 2001. The government population census report is not widely accepted in Nepal.

               Kamal Prakash Malla and Hark Gurung who were indulging themselves in scholarly creations before the restoration of democracy have also published a number of polished works in favor of language communities of Nepal. Gore Bahadur Khapangi has an outstanding record of reaching the outposts and speaking for the rights of indigenous peoples in the country. This tireless advocate for social change in Nepal has made a significant contribution to the preservation and development of endangered language communities in Nepal at a time when many of the world�s precious languages are vanishing day by day.


[1]                   I could discover only three fluent Kusunda speakers in remote parts of western Nepal in the year of 2000. No other Kusunda speakers are reported to have been found until today. The government of Nepal has allocated some money for the preservation of Kusundas.

                    Some linguists regard Kusunda and Burushaski as language isolate. Divergent views have emerged on whether Kusunda is a language isolate. Analyzing some 150 years old data, which often have inaccuracies, some western linguists have recently classified Kusunda as Indo-Pacific language. This new classification cannot be accepted because it is not a complete study, which lacks information on recent development on Kusunda language. Only pronominal studies will not suffice. It is understandable that some linguists as well as anthropologists are out there to establish a theory that first human being evolved from Sub-Saharan Africa. Those scholars argue human beings evolved from Africa and migrated via Indian subcontinent to the Pacific region. Be it whatever, the recent classification of Kusunda as Indo-Pacific language is not accepted by other prominent linguists.

[2] �Gorkha Kingdom� also suggests the political process and development that happened in Nepal. The much-preferred name in the history of modern Nepal, King Prithivi Narayan Shah, fore father of the current king Gyanendra, annexed Kathmandu valley into Gorkha in 1768. At that time Kathmandu Valley was known as �Nepal�  and  Newari was its  language. King Prithivi  discarded  Newari , introduced �Gorkha language�, gave the kingdom another name �Nepal and made  Kathmandu capital of his kingdom. The king, Nepali language and Hindu culture are perceived as symbols of  national unity.

[3] Vedic Scholars [ sages]

[4] Indigenous ethnic peoples with their own mother tongues, traditions, distinct cultural attributes and social structures and who also do have written or unwritten histories are designated by law as Janajatis of Nepal.

[5] Newars are one of the most advanced indigenous peoples of Nepal. They form 5.48% of the total population of Nepal.

[6] Magars are the largest indigenous group by 7.14%. They are third largest population group after Chhetri [15.80%] and Hill Brahman [12.74 %] in Nepal. No individual caste/ethnic group is over 16.00% of total population in Nepal.

[7] Tamangs form third largest among indigenous population after Magar and Tharu [5.64%].

[8]  i) Nepal Langhali Sangh,  ii) Nepal Tamang Ghedung, iii) Nepal Bhasa Manka Khala, iv) Tamu Baudha Sewa Samii, v) Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, vi) Kirat Rai Sanskritic Sangh vii) Sunuwar Sewa Samaj viii] Sagarmatha Sewa Kendra (Sherpa Association) were the signatories of the federation in 1990.

[9] The 16  unmentioned Janajatis in the recent census report are  Kushbadiya, Chhairotan, Tangbe, Topke Gola, Thudam, Fri, Mugali, Lhopa, Surel, Dolpo, Teen Gaule Thakali, Bankaria, Barah Gaule, Marphali Thakali, Larke and Lhomi [Shinsawa].

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