Nepal: saving a life to save a language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jan 18 13:57:17 UTC 2008

January 17, 2008
NEPAL: Saving a life to save a language

In an attempt to save a minority language spoken in western Nepal,
some researchers are planning to offer medical care to an 82-year-old
Nepali woman, who happens to be the last person to speak the language.
Soma Devi , who has severely impaired sight and hearing problems, is
the last speaker of Dura, a language that belongs to the
Tibeto-Burmese family. Duras, who live in some of the most remote
villages of western Nepal, are considered a minority indigenous group.

The Independent (UK) writes:

Scrambling to complete a dictionary of the language and a compile a
record of Dura culture, researchers are seeking to obtain medical
treatment for Mrs Dura both to help her and to give them more time to
finish their work. With her agreement they intend to bring Mrs Dura to
Nepal's capital Kathmandu, from her home in the west.  Experts say the
demise of their language has been a gradual process, exacerbated by a
"one-nation, one-language" policy instituted by the Shah dynasty, the
royal family which has ruled Nepal since the late 18th century. "This
policy made Nepali the only dominant language used in administration,
education and media at the cost of other languages. As a result,
minority-language speakers like the Dura gradually shifted to Nepali,
thereby giving up their mother tongues," said Professor Yogendra
Yadava, head of linguistics at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University.

Kedar Nagila, a doctoral candidate working on his thesis on endangered
languages, has recorded  250 sentences and 1,500 words so far and
plans to document more after bringing Soma Devi to Katmandu for
treatment. However, some word-lists and old government reports in Dura
have been preserved, most of which are now held at the Himalayan
Languages Project at Leiden University in the Netherlands.  The
project's director, Professor George van Driem, said the historically
low status of the Dura people had also been a factor in accelerating
the loss of the language. He said it was ironic that the Shah dynasty
– poised to be ousted by Nepal's parliament – was descended from the
Dura people.

Nepal is said to have more than 100 tongues with less than 100
speakers each in some of them. And because  the younger generation is
not learning these languages from their parents, some are in the verge
of extinction.

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