IIAS Newsletter 10, Autumn 1996, South Asia 02

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South Asia

Descriptive Linguistics in the Himalayas of Nepal

The Kulung: Language and Traditions


Nepal is unique in its linguistic variety of languages belonging to different language families such as Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, and Tibeto-Burman. The Indo-Aryan language Nepali, which has become the official language of the Hindu kingdom, is gaining more and more popularity among speakers of minority languages, the upshot being a new generation of minorities which has completely lost knowledge of its mother tongue. Kulung, still used by an estimated 15,000 people, is no exception.

Spoken in the remote Hongu valley of Solu Khumbu district, Kulung does not enjoy great popularity among the younger people who are willing to migrate to the capital Kathmandu where more facilities are available. Descriptive linguists working in the Himalayas are analysing complex grammatical constructions and recording native vocabulary of languages that are on the verge of extinction.

The Language

Kulung is one of the Kiranti languages, spoken in the hills of eastern Nepal. Despite their close genetic relation, the Kiranti languages are not mutually intelligible. Some shared distinct Kiranti lexicon and the complex morphology of the verb have lead to linguistic classification of these languages as Kiranti. A verb in a Kiranti language consists of a verb stem to which affixes, i.e. prefixes or suffixes, can be added. An affix expresses grammatical notions such as tense, person, number, or negation, or may consist of a combinations of these. The suffix '-i' in Kulung, for example, indicating a first plural person in the preterite tense, can not be analysed into more morphemes.

Such affixes, known as portemanteau morphemes, are especially interesting since they reveal something about the history of the language and, even more importantly, about the Kiranti languages in general. Another feature of Kulung verbal morphology is the system of verb stem alternation which is found throughout the whole verbal paradigm. Each verb stem in Kulung can have as many as seven allomorphs. What historical process gave rise to this development of allomorphy in not yet clear, but after descriptions of the verbal system of other Kiranti languages have become available more can be said about this curious phenomenon.

Kulung is an ergative language, i.e. agents of transitive verbs take ergative case endings while patients of transitive verbs and subjects of intransitive verbs are found in the unmarked absolutive. The Kulung case system shows a total of eleven cases.

Deictic categories are found in all parts of Kulung grammar. In nominal morphology different case endings are found denoting various deictic notions such as up, down, and level. With verbs, deictic notions determine the use of different auxiliaries, which are verb forms that are attached directly to the verb stem and add a semantic nuance to the meaning of the main verb.

It is no coincidence that the area in which Kulung is spoken is dominated by the geographical environment in which hills and rivers play an important role.

The People

The Kulung are a small tribe of sedentary farmers whose main crops are millet and maize. Millet is not only the ingredient from which yuw a kind of paste is made which forms the staple diet of the Kulung, but is also used in the preparation various types of local beer.

Collecting firewood and working in the fields are the main tasks of a Kulung household, which generally consists of about six members. Marriage takes place between members of different clans. Only in special circumstances can members of the same clan intermarry. Unlike the Hindu population of Nepal, the Kulung bury their death.

According to the Kulung people, the Kulung ancestors migrated from the Tarai, i.e. the lowlands of Nepal and settled in the Hongu valley some thirty-five generations ago. Having settled there, they waged war against the local people called rupiyongchha by the Kulung. Eventually the rupiyongchha were defeated and tried to escape to the sun with the aid of a ladder made of buckwheat.

Ritual Tradition

Ritual tradition is the most important aspect of Kulung cultural life. Rites, lasting for one or more days, are sometimes quite elaborate and are always performed by a local shaman. To ensure good health and prosperity rites have to be performed by a household at regular intervals and the neglect of rites is said to cause illness and material loss.

Other rites, of a more social character, are performed by the local people of a whole village. During the tos rite for example, the deceased relatives of the Kulung are invoked and the growth of crops is promoted. People gather on a hill in the village, beating cymbals and blowing on a pung, the horn of a water-buffalo. The nokchho or priest, adorned with a head-scarf made of feathers pours ritual millet-beer (that may not be drunk), out of a gourd on to a stone, which has been put in a hole in the ground. People dance around this hole and beat the cymbals. After a while the priest also starts to dance. The purpose of the beating of the cymbals and blowing on the horn is to invoke the ancestors. Dances are performed to promote the growth of the crops. After the rite is finished millet-beer is drunk and ritual food is distributed and eaten.

is a researcher with the Himalayan Languages Project of the Department of Comparative Linguistics, Leiden University.

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