When I lived in Nepal (1965-67), I heard of the Kusunda, but never had a chance to go visit them. Now they are in the news, because their language — an isolate that linguists believe is unrelated to any other language in the world — is on the verge of extinction, with only one remaining speaker, 48-year-old Kamala Khatri.
"The language that doesn't use 'no'", by Eileen McDougall, BBC (8/9/22)
Selections from the article:
The Kusunda are highly marginalised and impoverished within Nepali society. Today, most live in west Nepal's Dang district, a sleepy region of yellow mustard fields and misty, wooded hills. It is here the Language Commission of Nepal has been running Kusunda classes since 2019 in an effort to preserve the language.
Originally semi-nomadic, the Kusunda lived in the jungles of west Nepal until the middle of the 20th Century, hunting birds and monitor lizards, and trading yams and meat for rice and flour in nearby towns. While they are now settled in villages, they still call themselves the Ban Rajas, or kings of the forest.
But as Nepal's population grew and farming increasingly fragmented the jungles, pressure on the Kusundas' homeland increased. Then, in the 1950s, the government nationalised great swathes of forests, presenting further obstacles to their nomadic life.
The Kusunda were forced to settle, turning to jobs in labouring and agriculture. Low numbers in the group and the disparate nature of their population meant they mostly married neighbouring ethnic groups. Almost all stopped speaking their language.
For the Kusunda people, losing their language means losing a link to their past, and to their identity.
From a linguistic point of view, it is a loss in other ways, too.
Madhav Pokharel, emeritus professor of linguistics at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, has been overseeing the documentation of the Kusunda language over the last 15 years. He explains that several studies have attempted to link it with other language isolates, such as Burushaski from north Pakistan and Nihali from India. But all have failed to find any robust conclusions.
Currently, linguistic researchers believe Kusunda is a survivor of an ancient aboriginal language spoken across the sub-Himalayan regions before the arrival of the Tibetan-Burman and Indo-Aryan tribes.
"We can trace all other language groups in Nepal to people coming from outside Nepal," says Pokharel. "It is only Kusunda whose origins we don't know."
Alongside its mysterious beginnings, linguists have noted Kusunda's many rare elements. Bhojraj Gautam, a linguist with in-depth knowledge of Kusunda, describes one of the most peculiar: there is no standard way of negating a sentence. Indeed, the language has few words implying anything negative. Instead, context is used to convey the exact meaning. If you want to say "I don't want tea", for example, you might use the verb to drink, but in an adjusted form which indicates a very low probability – synonymous with the speaker's desire – of the drinking of tea.
Kusunda also has no words for absolute directions, such as left or right, with the speaker using relative phrases such as "to this side" and "to that side" instead.
Meanwhile, linguists say Kusunda does not have the set, rigid grammatical rules or structures found in most languages. It is more flexible, and phrases must be interpreted relative to the speaker. For example, actions are not divided into past and present. When saying "I saw a bird" compared to "I will see a bird", a Kusunda speaker might indicate the past action not by tense, but by describing it as an experience directly related to the speaker. Meanwhile, the future action would remain general and not associated to any subject.
Ironically, these rare qualities – a large part of what makes Kusunda so fascinating to linguists – are partly why it has struggled to continue.
The Kusunda and their supporters are not giving up. They are organizing classes and even aiming to create a unified settlement that would bring together enough of their people to provide a speech community that would help them keep their language alive — whether it is related to any other language or no.
- "'No' in Chinese" (3/19/19)
- "Not not" (4/15/17)
- "Nepal, Naple(s), Naipul, nipple, whatever" (8/14/18) — with a nice bibliography at the beginning
- "Learn Nepali" (9/21/16)
- "Unknown Language #7" (2/27/13) — hmmm; going back to this much-commented post now, I wonder if the disoriented woman featured in it might be a dysfluent Kusunda speaker
- "The Straight Ones: Dan Everett on the Pirahã" (8/26/04) — Language Log has had many other posts on the unusual features of Pirahã (see here)
- "Kusunda language" (Wikipedia)
- "Kusunda people" (Wikipedia)
- "Kusunda (मिहाक / कुसान्डा)" (Omniglot)
[h.t. Lisa Roosen-Runge]