Deciphering Thangmi

An ethno-linguist’s race against time to document Nepal’s endangered language

Thangmi children in Dolakha from a picture Turin took when he first came to the village 25 years ago.

The Tibeto-Burman language Thangmi (or Thami) is spoken by 33,500 Nepalis. Historically unwritten and genetically related to Nepal Bhasa, Rai, or Baram, the language is also among the least documented in Nepal. 

But this will change thanks to a new two-volume monograph, A Grammar of the Thangmi Language, by Vancouver-based anthropologist and linguist Mark Turin.

Originally published in the Netherlands in 2012 by Brill, it was launched last month by Social Science Baha and Himal Books and is now available to the Thangmi-speaking community and researchers in Nepal and India. 

Thangmi has two major dialects spoken in Dolakha and Sindhupalchok, and there is a wide variation even between them, with differences in verbal agreement systems. For example, the word for गुँरास is completely different on the two sides of the Bhote Kosi River. The verbs ‘to come’ or ‘to go’ are different according to the direction whence and whither the speaker sees the object of the sentence arrive or leave. 

Turin’s involvement with Thangmi dates back to 1996 when he moved to the Netherlands for a PhD at Leiden University, where he joined the Himalayan Languages Project under the tutelage of George van Driem, himself a Himalayan researcher. Turin had lived in Nepal previously, researching Thakali in lower Mustang.

“I was in George’s office looking at this incredible map of the Himalayas with coloured pins and flags on it, and he asked me which language I would like to work on,” recalls Turin. 

The pins showed the locations of endangered and undocumented languages. Turin chose one which read थामी. By the spring of 1997, he was living in Damarang in Dolakha, learning and studying Thangmi. 

Among the more than 100 languages spoken in Nepal, many boast a robust documentary tradition, either by the community, foreign linguists, or both. However, when Turin began his research – and this was before Google and when the internet was still a fledgling – he searched the web got the only one hit: Joshua 2000, a group of missionaries who had identified the world’s least evangelised 100 peoples with the goal to bring the scriptures to the communities by 2000 AD, and the Thangmi were among them. 

“There was no comprehensive documentation then, a few hundred words had been compiled in a list by a few French and Japanese linguists and some Nepalis – but nothing beyond that,” Turin says. “It was striking how you could be in Kathmandu in the cusp of the new millennium and there was a language spoken not far away, and so little was known about it other than by the community itself.” 

Turin’s approach to the study of Thangmi was influenced by his interest in relationships and recording stories. People would walk long distances to bring him words or plants that he had not documented. Trained in anthropology, he was not studying the language, but rather learning it. The work was in the service of the community rather than solely in service of the language. 

“It is important to recognise local expertise not just as something you can extract but reimburse and elevate through co-publishing, co-authoring,” he says. “To try and offset the incredible differences of power, access and imbalance so the community’s own research can be promoted and made more visible.”

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This was when the Adivasi-Janjati movement, calling for recognition, reparation and justice for caste and ethnic discrimination was beginning in Nepal. There were demands for more proportionate representation of indigenous communities, including Thangmi, that had not got attention by the Nepali state for various political and cultural reasons.

“Many communities like the Thangmi were looking for some kind of representation,” Turin says. “It was very clear that as much as I was working with the language-speakers, they were working with me. Language is valuable to people as it is the emotional, effective, embodied experience of their sense of self.” 

What this meant was taking local positions around language seriously. well. “For example, if the community says ‘this is sensitive, don’t write it down’, then don’t write it down,” he adds. “Some things are lost if they are not written down – but that is not my prerogative, it’s the community’s decision.”

But there are often two points-of-views: linguistic and political. This is conspicuous in the case of the use of terms ‘Thami’ or ‘Thangmi’, and the proposed script for the language. 

The case of the ethnonyms presents an interesting debate. ‘Thami’ is a Nepalified term for ‘Thangmi’, and many older members of the community believe they should continue using the word because it is familiar at a national level. But the younger generation favours the endonym ‘Thangmi’. 

There are also discussions whether to use the Devanagari to write the language or invent a new, unique script. Thangmi is Tibetan-Burman but Devnagari is used to write Nepali, an Indo-European language. How appropriate is it for a writing system generated within one language family to map on to another? While this happens all the time – Nepal Bhasa is written in Ranjana or Prachalit scripts – Turin points out that there is also the matter of history, and an ethnic-cultural distinctiveness. 

While Devanagari would be more practical for Thangmi than Tibetan scripts, for example, the political backlash could be this it is also the script used by Brahmins and the Chhetris who have historically overlooked the community, he remarks. “Ramesh Thangmi and others in the community are looking at the scripts used by the Limbu community as a possibility for Thangmi,” he adds. 

There is also the issue of language revitalisation. Many Thangmi speakers remark that, growing up in the 90s especially, their parents would encourage them to speak in Nepali to fit in.

 Documentation is one step to reverse the devitalisation – as the monograph is testament. “But I feel like the real work has just begun,” says Turin. “Many languages have been documented in Nepal while others not, but it is an ongoing process. Then there is the future-proofing of that documentation through digitisation or archiving.” 

The last step is to connect, to publish the collection of documents, analyses, and to get them into schools. “And this never ends,” adds Turin. “Nepal now is in a great position with the new constitution and schools becoming more inclusive. Not a single young Thangmi speaker I know is mono-lingual and that is as it should be. This helps support innovation in the language, for Thangmi — as all languages — is always evolving.”

Deciphering Thangmi Books

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Ashish Dhakal


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