Worth of words

  • Public investment in linguistics is crucial to preserving endangered languages
- Ekantipur Report
Worth of words

Feb 19, 2014-

When a language dies, with it dies a part of the culture, tradition and history of the people who communicated in it. Kusunda, the language of the eponymous ethnic group in central and mid-western Nepal, is one such language that is on the verge of extinction. Listed as a critically endangered language—the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, who only speak the language partially and infrequently—by Unesco, there are only a handful of Kusunda speakers in the country. Rajamama Kusunda, 63, of Tanahun is one of them. But since his mother died some 23 years ago, he does not have anyone to talk to. He is, understandably, worried about forgetting his language and regrets not teaching it to his wife and daughter when he had the patience to do so. He claims to be the only person with an authentic knowledge of Kusunda, despite conflicting claims from a November 2012 AFP report which claims that a septuagenarian Gyani Maiya Sen of Dang is the “only surviving speaker of the language”. 

According to the 2001 census, 164 people in Nepal called themselves Kusunda, of which only 87 reportedly spoke the language. The 2011 census showed that there were 273 Kusundas in the country.  The number of speakers, however, is disputed. The book Notes on Kusunda Grammar published in 2006 states that indications by the speakers of the language estimate as few as seven to eight other speakers. This is distressing, as Kusunda is a language isolate, ie, it is related to no other language on earth. Given that language can only be preserved by using it more, it might even be too late to do anything about the Kusunda language. However, the government and various organisations working for indigenous people and universities researching linguistics can come together to prevent other endangered languages from meeting the same fate. 

The government’s plan to provide mother tongue-based multilingual education by 2015 is one such commendable step in that direction. However, only around two dozen schools in the country have received multilingual status as of now.  This process needs to be expedited. Once this initiative comes into practice, children will be motivated to learn their native language and will also be able to grasp things taught in school with more ease. To ensure this plan works, the Curriculum Development Board should reach out to organisations and linguists working with different indigenous communities to develop a more effective multilingual course. In the long run, there is a crucial need to increase investment in public-sector research on endangered languages in Nepal. Increasing funds for research in the Central Department of Linguistics, Tribhuvan University could be an excellent start. The funds could be used to document the languages, which would be an invaluable asset for speakers and researchers alike. The state of the Kusunda language should serve as a lesson to all of us. 

Published: 19-02-2014 08:45

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