Last of Nepal’s Kusunda speakers mourns dying language

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Updated 14 November 2012

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.


Tulips from Amsterdam? A blooming scam, says new probe

This file photo taken on March 6, 2003 shows bulbs at the flower market in Amsterdam. (AFP)
Updated 16 October 2019

Tulips from Amsterdam? A blooming scam, says new probe

  • Tulip bulbs should only be sold between August to December and planted before the start of the (northern hemisphere) winter, in order for the flowers to bloom in spring

THE HAGUE: Tourists are being ripped off at Amsterdam’s famous flower market, with just one percent of all bulbs sold at the floating bazaar ever producing a blossom, investigators said Tuesday.
A probe commissioned by the Dutch capital’s municipality and tulip growers also found that often only one flower resembled the pictures on the packaging like color, and that there were fewer bulbs than advertised.
“The probe showed that there is chronic deception of consumers,” at the sale of tulip bulbs at the flower market, the Royal General Bulb Growers’ Association (KAVB) said.
“Millions of tourists and day-trippers are being duped,” KAVB chairman Rene le Clercq said in a statement.
Amsterdam and the KAVB have now referred the matter to the Dutch consumer watchdog.
The Amsterdam flower market is one of the city’s most famous landmarks and dates from around 1862, when flower sellers sailed their barges up the Amstel River and moored them in the “Singel” to sell their goods.
Its fame inspired the popular song “Tulips from Amsterdam,” best known for a 1958 version by British entertainer Max Bygraves.
Today the market comprises of a number of fixed barges with little greenhouses on top. Vendors not only sell tulip bulbs but also narcissus, snowdrops, carnations, violets, peonies and orchids.
But of 1,363 bulbs bought from the Singel and then planted, just 14 actually bloomed, the investigation said.
Investigators found a similar problem along the so-called “flower bulb boulevard” in Lisse, a bulb-field town south of Amsterdam where the famous Keukenhof gardens are also situated.
Since first imported from the Ottoman Empire 400 years ago, tulips “have become our national symbol and the bulb industry a main player in the Dutch economy,” said Le Clercq.
But the “deception about the tulip bulbs is a problem that has been existing for the past 20 years,” he added.

The victims are often tourists, KAVB director Andre Hoogendijk said.
“A tourist who buys a bad bulb is not likely to come back,” he told Amsterdam’s local AT5 news channel.
Vendors at the market told AT5 that complaints were known.
“There are indeed stalls here that sell rubbish. That is to everyone’s disadvantage, because it portrays the whole flower market in a bad light,” one unidentified vendor said.
But a spokesperson for the City of Amsterdam said that all vendors were being investigated “and that the results are shocking.”
“So to say that it is only a few stalls is not true,” the spokesperson told AFP in an email.
The probe took place earlier in the year during springtime, the spokesperson said.
“The issue is that you shouldn’t even sell tulip bulbs during the spring. No decent florist shop in Holland does that.”
Tulip bulbs should only be sold between August to December and planted before the start of the (northern hemisphere) winter, in order for the flowers to bloom in spring.