Monday, May 30, 2011

Linguistic Repression in Nepal

This is Chittadhar Tuladhar, who wrote under the pen name Hridaya, a famous Nepali poet who lived from 1906 to 1982.

The man knows how to wear a beard. (picture from wikipedia)

In 1940 he was imprisoned for ten years by the Rana regime for publishing this collection of poems, Padya Nikunjya, secretly abroad in India. 

Padya Nikunjya (picture from

The most controversial poem was entitled "Mother," and was written ostensibly in honor of his recently deceased mother. What was so inflammatory about these poems? They were published in the Newari language, at the time an illegal act. The government also suspected that "Mother" was actually about the mother tongue of the Newari people, which the Rana prime ministers were actively suppressing. In the same year, the poet Siddhicharan Shrestha was imprisoned for life for publishing the poem 'Barsa' in the Newari language, and Fatte Bahadur Singh was imprisoned for life for publishing the book 'Nepal Bihar.'

Unlike most of the languages of Nepal, the Newari language has an ancient and distinguished literary tradition. The language is usually referred to as 'Nepal Bhasha,' which can be confusing to outsiders because it means 'Nepal language.' This is a completely distinct language from the national language of Nepal, Nepali. In fact, Nepal Bhasha is a Sino-Tibetan language, genetically more akin to Sherpa and Mandarin than it is to Nepali (although it has been significantly influenced by Nepali and other Indo-European languages). It was the language of Kathmandu Valley, of the ancient Newari kingdoms of Kathmandu and Patan and Bhaktapur, of the Newari traders and craftsmen who managed the trade routes from Tibet to India. Before the unification, Kathmandu Valley was known as Nepal, and the language of the hill kingdom of Gorkha (the kingdom that was destined to conquer the Valley and unify the many kingdoms of Nepal) was known as 'Khas Bhasha' or 'Gorkha Bhasha.' Today, 'Khas Bhasha' is 'Nepali' and 'Nepal Bhasha' is 'Newari.'

The Rana Regime (and, I think to a lesser extent, the following Panchayat era) promoted a policy of one nation, one religion, one culture, one language. The ideal of a Hindu Nation created a unified identity for the country but gave justification to the dominance of Sanskritic culture and the caste system. Cultural, linguistic, and religious suppression went hand in hand. Linguistically, that policy was a double-edged sword; Nepali emerged as a practical lingua franca throughout the country, but at the expense of many languages that have disappeared or will disappear within the next century.

At the time, language activists worked underground, secretly publishing materials in their native languages. For me this is a fascinating time in Nepali history, but I have had difficulty finding information about it in English. I recently spoke with Amrit Yonjan-Tamang, a current activist for the Tamang language who secretly published works in Tamang during the Panchayat era. He told me about Bir Nembang and other Limbu activists who were arrested for illegally developing teaching materials for the Limbu language. The National Education Planning Commission of 1956 stated:

"The study of the local languages in Nepal other than the Nepali will hinder the effective development of the latter, given that the use by the student of languages other than Nepali in the house and society will cause Nepali to become an alien language. If the students are taught Nepali from the primary level other languages will gradually become unimportant, and it will help in national integration."

Today Amrit Yonjan-Tamang writes for legal Tamang language publications and is involved with many indigenous language groups that practice openly. Since the Revolution of 1990 the constitution of the government of Nepal has protected the rights of native language speakers, although the government has been haphazard in putting this into practice. Language rights are tied up with the rights of ethnic minorities in Nepal, and are often spoken about in the many protests and parades that one sees along the streets of Kathmandu. There are also government provisions for mother tongue primary education in Nepal.

Yet today many of these languages continue to decline. There is less overt oppression of the languages today, but there is enormous pressure to conform to the languages that represent economic security and modernity: Nepali and English. There are provisions in place for schools to teach in mother languages, and yet the overwhelming popular belief is that a quality education can only come from English immersion. I spent last Wednesday visiting all of the schools that are being considered for the Fulbright ETAs next year, and a school was considered more desirable (by the teachers with whom we spoke, and on the forms we had to fill out) the more grade levels that were nominally English medium. All but one school had embarked on a long-term program to become an English Medium government school, starting with 1st grade and moving upwards a grade a year.

We could say that the quote above from the Education survey is just as commonly believed today as it was in 1956, but you would have to replace the word 'Nepali' with the word 'English.'

For this blog post, I am indebted to Amrit Yonjan-Tamang. The names of authors and the quote from the education survey came from Process of Democratization and Linguistic (Human) Rights in Nepal  by Govinda Bahadur Tumbahang.


  1. luke, i have to ask, from a philosophical perspective: are you assuming that the diversity of languages, specifically the existence of a rare language, is inherently a good? because trying to preserve these languages may truly be counterproductive for their integration into a society that is barely large enough, even if unified, to support a self-sufficient society in today's world. a diversity of languages only subdivides small polity into even smaller, globally uncompetitive (and i mean this in a darwinistic sense) units.

    i'm playing devil's advocate a bit here, because i do believe rare languages do have a role, much as diverse genes strengthen the overall human gene pool, but to be perfectly honest i don't know of any empirical evidence in support of that. so i really don't know what the inherent value of a rare language is - at least in terms of the well-being of humans.

  2. To be honest, I am interested in this time when languages were specifically targeted by the government because compared to today it is less morally ambiguous. Few people these days would argue against the idea that it is immoral and tyrannical to arrest authors and destroy books and chip off the words on ancient statues with the specific intention of suppressing religious and cultural expression. At a time such as this, to be a linguist is to be a revolutionary.

    Today, however, you can certainly make the case that preserving language communities may harm the well-being of people. It need not be so; a proper multilingual education is actually beneficial to intellectual development (as is multilingualism itself). Given a good education, every person should certainly be able to competently speak a local language, a national language, and a global language. Some would say that this is a human right. In the real world, however, educational systems are far from perfect, minority languages are often associated with the poor and looked-down-upon, and forgetting your own language may help you get a leg up in society. If a poor subsistence farmer sees tangible ways in which switching his language loyalties can benefit his family, then I cannot presume to convince him otherwise.

    I might humbly point out that as the grandson of a speaker of a soon-to-be-extinct dialect who sacrificed a lot for the prosperity of his family (including his own mother tongue), I do feel some sadness at the loss of this dialect as a marker of my identity.

    As to empirical evidence in support of the value of rare languages, I have read arguments from various linguists, and none of them have completely convinced me. A popular argument is that every language encodes certain types of knowledge and a particular way of thinking about the world, which in essence means that with more language diversity, we have more ways of solving problems. This strikes me as contentious neo Sapir-Whorfism. Speakers of a particular language might be able to orient themselves to North better or distinguish certain colors better, but I haven't heard any practical arguments for how language diversity could advance technological or scientific or philosophical understanding (with the obvious exception of the science of linguistics, which is experiencing a crisis in data loss). It is similar to the idea that we should preserve the diversity of the rainforest because we might find a plant that cures cancer. Some preservationists are offended by that notion; they see the preservation itself as an inherent good.

    To answer your original question, I do not assume that the diversity of languages is inherently a good, just that language repression is an inherent evil. I would love it if someone could convince me that language diversity is an inherent good, because then I would have something I would be willing to dedicate my life to. I personally want to see a diversity of languages, but that is just because I am a language nerd. Languages belong to their speakers, and it is for them to decide whether they have inherent, cultural, or practical value.

    Some reading (available online):

    "Getting Language Rights: The Rhetoric of Language Endangerment and Loss" by Joseph Errington

  3. I like your sentence "Given a good education, every person should certainly be able to competently speak a local language, a national language, and a global language."

    Where we might differ is that I would not like to see English as that global language. I would prefer Esperanto. English has a role in the disappearance of smaller language. As you know, English is tied to a specific group of nations, whereas Esperantyo is not.

    I'd like to see Catalans speaking Catalan, Spanish and Esperanto. In Wales, the formula would be Welsh, English, Esperanto, in Bengal it might be Bengali, Hindi, Esperanto.

  4. I agree with the comment about Esperanto. Esperanto is indeed alive and well. In fact many people do not realise how popular, as a living language, Esperanto is.

    The new study course is now receiving 120,000 hits per month.

    That can't be bad :)