Nepali languages : Case for a separate academy

Language creates culture and is the kernel of a society. So said Benjamin Lee Whorf. God, too, created language first to facilitate man in his expression. Next He created several languages to confuse mankind in order to foil their attempt to reach heaven through the Tower of Babel and thus deconstruct the providential plan of earthly chores. Human beings, however, strove to demystify and disambiguate different languages to reach any part of the universe and even beyond.

Later, linguists tried to analyse their subtleties and unravel the so far ineffable feelings and emotions of both human and non-human, and animate and inanimate objects. They, therefore, are trying to retain the languages in vogue, and revive the moribund ones. On the other hand, writers and researchers alike have breathed life and soul into the explicitly concrete to implicitly abstract subjects. With political and cultural emancipation, they are also advocating for mother-tongue education, at least, at the primary level.

Language knows no frontiers. It has not only infiltrated but also enriched every discipline under the sun: science, technology, fiction, religion, law, literature, politics, history, archaeology, aeronautics, cybernetics and so on. It gives voice and expression even to the most enigmatic phenomena. So the linguists take it intuitively and imperatively that in the present inclusive and secular state of Nepal there be an autonomous and independent language academy.

It was with this view that the linguists and language activists of Tribhuvan University, especially those hailing from Central Department of Linguistics (CDL) and Linguistic Society of Nepal (LSN), including professors and past presidents, met concertedly the coordinator of Nepal Academy Restructure Recommendation Committee, Bairagi Kainla, and presented separate memoranda.

Nepal is a linguistically diverse country. According to CBS (2001), there are more than 92 languages spoken as mother tongues in Nepal though Ethnologue (Gordon, 2005: SIL) presents an estimate of as many as 126 languages used in this country. Most of the mother tongues have no literate traditions. They are on the verge of extinction because of marginal number of their speakers, language shift, migration to urban areas, lack of use, young generation stopping to speak their mother tongues, dominant language Nepali, etc.

A language or mother tongue is considered the greatest achievement of human civilisation. In Language and Species (1990), Derek Bickerton shows that the possession of language alone may be sufficient to account for both our unique minds and our unparalleled success as a species. For language, he argues, is a way of representing the world quite different from the ways of other creatures. Language is more than a reflection, merely labelling our thoughts and their objects — it actually creates all that we communicate about. Besides being a unique way of representing world’s views, language also expresses the cultural identity of its native speakers and their communities. Above all, linguistic and cultural diversity bestows on Nepal a rich and fascinating image and should be treated as an asset and resources for study and research.

However, mother tongues spoken in Nepal and elsewhere lie in a precarious situation. Ninety-six per cent of Nepal’s total population speak just about 7 per cent of the mother tongues. Conversely, only 7 per cent of Nepal’s population speak 93 per cent of its languages. Obviously then, a large number of Nepal’s mother tongues are going to die out very soon. To avert this crisis, it is high time that Nepal’s mother tongues be promoted and preserved for posterity.

In this connection, some positive signs are visible on both national as well as international fronts. Now we can see growing awareness among indigenous communities and their organisations for the promotion and use of their mother tongues in education, mass media, and even day-to-day interaction. As a prerequisite, such measures require their documentation including their writing systems, dictionary, grammar and reading materials. The attempts by National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities, TU Department of Linguistics and some international agencies are laudable. But these attempts are not adequate. It is high time that the state set up a separate autonomous language academy to regulate activities such as scientific documentation of all the living languages of Nepal, preservation and promotion of endangered languages, developing textbooks in local languages to cater to the needs of mother-tongue education to the primers, compiling dictionaries and preparing grammars for different languages, and so on. This is not a new proposal but a well-known practice in several multilingual democracies of the world.

Dr Yadava is professor of Linguistics, TU; Rauniyar is secretary-treasurer, Linguistic Society of Nepal