Last of Nepal’s Kusunda speakers mourns dying language

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Updated 14 November 2012
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Last of Nepal’s Kusunda speakers mourns dying language

As Gyani Maiya Sen nears the end of her life she worries that her final words may the last ever spoken in her mysterious mother tongue.
The 76-year-old, part of a vanishing tribe in remote western Nepal, is the only surviving native speaker of Kusunda, a language of unknown origins and unique sentence structures that has long baffled experts.
“There’s no one else with whom I can speak in my language. I used to speak with my mother but since her death in 1985, I am left alone,” she said by telephone, speaking in Nepali.
Yet the frail, gnarled tribeswoman is the focus of renewed interest among linguists across the world who are trying to ensure her language survives in some form after she has gone.
Sen’s Kusunda tribe, now just 100 members, were once a nomadic people, but she has found herself living out her twilight years in a concrete bungalow built by local authorities in Dang district in western Nepal.
“How can I forget the language I grew up learning? I used to speak it when I was a child. Even now, I wish I could talk to someone who understands my language,” Sen said.
Nepal, wedged between China and India, is home to more than 100 ethnic groups speaking as many languages, and linguists say at least 10 have disappeared in recent decades.
UNESCO lists 61 of Nepal’s languages as endangered, meaning they are falling out of use, and six of them, including Kusunda, as “critically endangered.”
“Language is part of culture. When it disappears, the native speakers will not only lose their heritage and history but they will also lose their identity,” said Tribhuvan University linguistics professor Madhav Prasad Pokharel.
“Kusunda is unique because it is not related to any other language in the world. It is also not influenced by other languages,” Pokharel said. “In linguistic terms we call it a language isolate.” Until recently, there were two other native speakers of Kusunda, Puni Thakuri and her daughter Kamala Khatri, but Puni died two years ago and Kamala migrated to India for work, leaving Sen the sole surviving native speaker.
Tribhuvan University, in Katmandu, started up a project 10 years ago to document and preserve Kusunda, inviting Thakuri and Khatri to the Nepalese capital. But as the money ran out, the research ground to a halt.
The project has been given new life by Bhojraj Gautam, a student of Pokharel who recently spent months recording Sen speaking and is gaining the knowledge to speak basic Kusunda himself in the process.
As part of the project, funded by the Australian Research Council, Gautam has written down the entire language and the outcome, he says, will eventually be a Kusunda dictionary and a comprehensive grammar. Kusunda, incorrectly first classified as a Tibeto-Burman language, has three vowels and 15 consonants, and reflects the history and culture of its people.
“They call themselves ‘myahq’, which means tiger. That’s because they think of themselves as the kings of forests,” Pokharel said.
The origins of the Kusunda people have never been established but they are believed to have lived in the midwestern hills of what is now Nepal for hundreds of years.
They traditionally rely on hunting to survive and are adept at using arrows and bows for killing wild animals, with lizards and wild fowl being their meal of choice.
Pokharel said Kusundas have no equivalent of the word “green” because the forest-dwellers are surrounded by vegetation and don’t recognize greenery as something that needs its own word.
The tribe has been dying out for decades, with women marrying outside the blood line, and the language is perishing with it as many take to speaking Nepali.
“The native speakers shifted to other languages. Factors such as marriage outside their tribe, migration and modernization also contributed to the loss,” Pokharel said.
When King Mahendra dismissed the elected government in 1960 and put in its place an autocratic, partyless system, which would govern Nepal for the next 30 years, the use of languages other than Nepali was discouraged.
With the end of a decade-long Maoist insurgency in 2006 and a revived focus on the rights of minorities, indigenous people have started to preserve their language and culture.
But while it may be too late for Kusunda, Pokharel said a national institution was needed to try to protect Nepal’s other dying languages.
“Transferring language to a non-native speaker is important and indeed the only way to save it,” Pokharel said.


Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann dead at 89

In this Nov. 14, 2003, file photo, Santa Fe Institute co-founder Murray Gell-Mann, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for physics, is seen Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP)
Updated 6 min 36 sec ago
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Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann dead at 89

  • Born in New York City on September 15, 1929, Gell-Mann was encouraged to study physics by his father, and earned a doctorate in the subject from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951

WASHINGTON: Murray Gell-Mann, a physicist who theorized the existence of the quark and won a Nobel Prize for his method of classifying particles, has died at age 89, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) said.
Considered among the most important physicists of the 20th century, the American scientist theorized in the 1960s that subatomic particles — protons and neutrons — were composed of paired subunits he called quarks.
Experiments later confirmed the existence of the particles, which are a continuing subject of study by physicists including those at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful proton smasher straddling the French-Swiss border.
Amid an explosion of research into what makes up matter in the 1950s and 1960s, Gell-Mann came up with a criteria for putting particles in groups of eight based on characteristics like electric charge and spin.
He called it the “eightfold way,” Caltech said, and was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics for the innovation.
Born in New York City on September 15, 1929, Gell-Mann was encouraged to study physics by his father, and earned a doctorate in the subject from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951.
He taught at Caltech in Pasadena, California from 1955 until his retirement in 1993.
“Dr. Gell-Mann had this clear vision and penetrating insight to look through the large amounts of data that were coming from experiments and make sense of it,” Hirosi Ooguri, a professor at Caltech and director of the school’s Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics, said in an obituary published by the university.
“He opened a new paradigm in particle physics.”