Language has an important function in society. Whether it is communication, creating social unity, or passing down norms from generation to generation, language impacts society as a whole through individuals. However, in most modern countries, people are multilingual, and it is common to see one language grow more prominent than the other.

The degradation of local dialects and languages, the trend of children not learning their mother tongue, and the lack of responsibility among parents to preserve heritage and language are common issues in places like Bhutan and other Himalayan religions. Use of local dialects/languages seems to be limited to the home domain and more specifically among elders, even on social media, many tend to follow the commonly spoken language like English.

These were similar concerns shared at the 27th Himalayan Language Symposium held in Guwahati, India (June 12-14) where about 86 linguists, scholars and anthropologists gathered to present and discuss language. The symposium is an annually convening, open scholarly forum for scholars of Himalayan languages. The importance of social linguistics, syntax, phonetics, phonology, phylogeny, and typology of languages was discussed.

The symposium’s first founder, Dr George van Driem (PhD) of the University of Bern, who wrote the grammar of Dzongkha, stated that this symposium is important because it examines Himalayan languages from a scientific and linguistic perspective that plays a role in smaller language communities. “It is vital to study, explore, and document these languages, especially local dialects, in Bhutan. It is important not only for survival but also to thrive in future. Language should be valued and respected so that future generations are drawn to and expressive in the languages they choose.”

George mentioned that such a conference is an opportunity for many linguists/researchers in Bhutan to connect and communicate with diverse linguists from other communities and gain an understanding of how to document and analyse language in depth. However, this requires a robust strategy that encourages language study and documentation.

The symposium brought in almost 150 scholars, anthropologists, linguistics and researchers working on the language together indicating it was time for the locals to conduct the study and analyse their community languages instead of foreigners to document the languages from their perspectives. Almost 70 different unique languages, including three languages from Bhutan, were presented and discussed. Scholars and linguists talked about the importance of its features, sounds of different languages, documentation of languages, and the risk of extinction of these languages. Bringing in scholars working on languages, the symposium is a way for many Himalayan linguists, including anthropologists to explore ideas in language documentation.

If we look at it, many of these languages that are being studied or have been studied, found that less than 10,000 people continue to speak the majority of these languages. For instance, the ongoing documentation of Bhutanese Lhop and Monpa languages using an interdisciplinary approach has estimated that there are less than 800 Lhokpu speakers in seven villages of South-West of Bhutan. It is estimated there are less than 400 people who speak Monpa in eight villages.

The ongoing study is jointly carried out by Mareike Wulff and Linguist Dr Gwendolyn Hyslop from the University of Sydney, Australia in collaboration with the Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies (CBS) as a host institute in Bhutan. Both Lhokpu, spoken by the Lhop, and Monkha spoken by the Monpa community, are considered highly endangered isolates within the Trans-Himalayan/Tibeto-Burman family.

Wulff, a sociocultural anthropologist, said it is a concern because both communities are Indigenous minority groups with their languages as well as cultural practices being highly endangered and under-described to date. “This is why documentation is carried out to document endangered language and cultural practices. By providing language data and analysis, the anthropologist benefits by providing a more precise understanding of cultural practices and data on highly specialised indigenous cultural practices. The linguist benefits from a more sophisticated body of language deep into the people’s lives,” she added.

Representing another Bhutanese dialect, Kuenga Lhendup who is pursuing a PhD in Linguistics, is conducting an study on the internal phylogeny of the Kurtöp language. The research involves proposing a historical reconstruction of the proto-Kurtöp language and is affiliated with the University of Sydney and CBS. Kurtöp is spoken across several villages in three gewogs of Lhuentse in Eastern Bhutan. Based on phonological, morphological, and lexical observations, six dialects have been identified as Dungkar, Zhamleng, Shawa, Ne, Gangzur, and Tangmachu.

Internal phylogeny assists linguists in tracking the historical development and evolution of language, aiding in the understanding of how dialects or varieties have diverged from each other over time, as well as the reasons for the divergence.

Kuenga emphasised that Bhutan is home to a rich array of languages, but unfortunately, the majority are endangered or on the verge of extinction, including the national language Dzongkha. This makes the documentation of languages imperative.

According to UNESCO, over 3,000 endangered languages could be extinct in the next 100 years. As such, linguistic research can help document these languages ensuring that cultural and historical knowledge embedded in them is not lost. In linguistics word, family language policy (FLP) is something that community members could employ at the micro level that is family. It is explicit and implicit planning of language at home and among family members; often exposed to other languages from the region and have frequent language contact. There is a need to make conscious language choices and language management efforts such as FLP to maintain language.

The 27th Himalayan Language Symposium was held at the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati this year. The next symposium will be in Oregon, USA next year. The 10th language symposium was held in Bhutan in 2004.

Contributed by

Yangchen C Rinzin

Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies