At least 11 native Nepali languages have already been lost with no hope of recovery and as many as 65 other are vanishing or are on the verge of vanishing. This is a serious issue because each language shares such an intricate bond with the culture it is associated with that it alone can facilitate a somewhat thorough analysis of the culture. The theory of deconstructionism takes this notion to another level by maintaining that languages are the vehicles of a culture’s beliefs, ideologies, and shared history and that language and culture are mutually constitutive. That being said, different languages across the globe are continuously dying and causing the death of the premise and the backbone of entire civilizations forever losing their heritage and tradition. This stands as true for Nepal’s endangered languages as it does for any other country’s language/s.
UNESCO has identified 62 different languages in Nepal in different stages of endangerment. 13 of them are listed as vulnerable (defined as restricted in use within homes and similar domains). Under the status of definitely endangered, there are 29 Nepali native languages which are recognized as no longer being the mother tongue. 13 languages are severely endangered in the sense that only older generations speak the language while the current generation may understand it but do not use it anymore and the language is not taught to children. Similarly, six native Nepali languages are listed as critically endangered, meaning only older generations speak the language and that too, incompletely and rarely.
As mentioned already, languages carry with them a significant portion of a culture’s legacy and customs and their demise means t the demise of an entire set of a culture’s values and its history. This means, over five dozen kinds of Nepali culture are at risk of being extinct anytime in the near future with most of them needing immediate response. There are many causes instigating the demise of languages in Nepal with the fascination of national and more popular languages like Nepali and English and the gross negligence on the part of those in positions of power being the profound ones.
As has been noted throughout the world, indigenous communities and linguistic minorities abandon their mother tongue in favor of more commonly or universally spoken languages to facilitate their trade or general communication with the wider population. Though learning national and other generally used languages are definitely beneficial, the dumping of one’s own language destroys the basis of celebrating the uniqueness and richness of one’s culture. In like manner, the people with any knowledge of this self-destructive phenomenon have forsaken themselves from any responsibilities. Though notions of cultural preservation and safeguard of language rights is a far cry for an impoverished country like Nepal that is battling power crisis, famine, malnourishment, natural disasters and epidemics, a more concerted effort for the preservation and fostering of all the native Nepali languages was always possible throughout the course of its modern history.
Recent developments in Nepal have been encouraging, nonetheless. Linguists, scholars, leaders of indigenous communities and major political forces, anthropologists and governmental and non-governmental agencies alike have come out with agendas to protect and promote the unique heritage of most of Nepal’s endangered native languages. Distinct efforts of collaboration among these parties seem non-existent, however. Moreover, preservation attempts for the most critically endangered Nepali languages associated with the most backward communities seems limited to a few language enthusiasts as they lack proper representation in state or private organizations including media and education.
Nepal Bhasa spoken by Nepal’s Newar community is a prominent example of continued community effort toward its conservation and rejuvenation. With only over three percent of native speakers, Nepal Bhasa has been preserved through the establishment of elementary schools using Nepal Bhasa as the primary mode of instruction and through the promotion of Nepal Bhasa literature and other forms of performance arts. On top of these, websites have also been developed to sustain the culture and language of Nepal’s diverse communities. The Maithili language and the Limbu language are other examples of languages that have witnessed revitalization in recent times.
In 2004, a praiseworthy effort was made by the late linguist David E. Watters with the support of some Nepali scholars and the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) to preserve the Kusunda dialect, a moribund language. With just over 50 native speakers confined to Bheri Zone of Western Nepal, Kusunda was slated to become yet another extinct language when Watters created ‘Notes on Kusunda Grammar: A Linguistic Isolate of Nepal’ recording the language and preparing its grammatical description. This praiseworthy endeavor by Watters should be an example to the rest of the Nepali and international linguists. Languages like Athpahariya, Bahing, Chintang, Dumi, Gurung, Hayu, Jirel, Kumale, Lohorung, Majhi, Narpa, Puma, Raute, Surel, Thulung, Wambule, and Yakkha among others need similar attention.
Nepal has made significant strides in preserving the more than 126 Nepali languages currently spoken within the country. Nepal follows the United Nations’ Declaration of Language Rights which presses for the recognition of indigenous languages and their preservation through efforts from the government’s side. The Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2006, has incorporated some very important provisions regarding Nepal’s commitment toward the preservation and promotion of languages which was conspicuously absent in the previous constitution of 1990. For example, the constitution recognizes every language spoken in Nepal as a national language and authorizes their use as modes of communication in local government offices. Besides, the necessity of proven command over the official language, Nepali, is no longer the requirement to gain citizenship of Nepal. Similarly, a clause in the constitution states that there shall be no discrimination against any of the citizens on grounds of religion, race, sex, caste, tribe, ideological convention, language, and origin. The last two, language and origin, were missing in the previous constitution. Lastly, regarding Nepal’s commitment to language rights, the current constitution grants each community residing in Nepal the right to education in their mother tongue.
The progress made towards preserving Nepal’s endangered languages and allowing them to flourish is laudable. Much is still left to be done though. Minority communities and their languages have suffered from the discrimination of the elite communities thus forcing many native Nepali languages and cultures into extinction. The constitution-in-the-making needs to ensure that Nepal’s endangered languages continue to receive the attention and support from the State. The right to communicate in the way one desires is a must for any democratic nation. Nepal has always recognized itself as a nation of cultural and tribal diversity, now it is time to celebrate that fact and pride itself in its linguistic diversity. Only then can Nepal’s endangered languages be protected and given a new lease of life.