Battle to save the last of Nepal's Dura speakers

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The Independent Online

Soma Devi Dura is blind, partly deaf and in failing health. At the age of 82 she is also the last direct link to one of the hundreds of Asia's indigenous languages threatened by extinction.

Mrs Dura is believed to be the last remaining speaker of Dura, the language once spoken by the Nepalese ethnic group from which both she and the language she alone can speak take their names. The only other known speaker of Dura died last August.

Scrambling to complete a dictionary of the language and a compile a record of Dura culture, researchers are seeking to obtain medical treatment for Mrs Dura both to help her and to give them more time to finish their work. With her agreement they intend to bring Mrs Dura to Nepal's capital Kathmandu, from her home in the west.

Kedar Nagila, a linguist who wrote a PhD thesis on the endangered language, said 1,500 words and 250 sentences in Dura had already been documented. By bringing Mrs Dura to Kathmandu and using specialist hearing equipment, he hopes she will be able to provide even more information. "They are planning to come next month," he said. "The lady is the last speaker of Dura."

The ethnic Dura live mainly in the hilly farm country of the Lamjung district of Nepal. Experts say the demise of their language has been a gradual process, exacerbated by a "one-nation, one-language" policy instituted by the Shah dynasty, the royal family which has ruled Nepal since the late 18th century. "This policy made Nepali the only dominant language used in administration, education and media at the cost of other languages. As a result, minority-language speakers like the Dura gradually shifted to Nepali, thereby giving up their mother tongues," said Professor Yogendra Yadava, head of linguistics at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University. "This is the critical stage of language endangerment applicable not only to Dura but also several other minority languages such as Kusunda, Dumi, Raji, Raute and Baram spoken in Nepal where 96 per cent of 126 Nepalese languages are facing extinction."

Mrs Dura's husband, son and five daughters do not speak Dura and she has no alternative but to speak with them in another Nepali language. Asked what Mrs Dura's death would mean for the Dura language, Professor Yadava said: "It'll certainly be a great loss to the Dura community as they will lose the symbol of their identity. This will also mean a significant loss to the world's knowledge as every language is unique in expressing concepts and thoughts."

With the words and sentences already collated, officials are beginning efforts to teach the language to Dura children. Two teaching books have already been prepared and the community is awaiting funds for publication.

"Sadly, we do not have sponsors for publishing of the research book on our language," Kishor Dura, a senior Dura official told The Kathmandu Post. "We are on the verge of losing our identity with the loss of our language and yet no one seems to be sensitive enough to realise the fact that with our language lost we will lose the cultural values it carries for our community."

A handful of other Dura sources exist in the form of word-lists and government reports. Most of these are now held at the Himalayan Languages Project at Leiden University in the Netherlands. The project's director, Professor George van Driem, said the historically low status of the Dura people had also been a factor in accelerating the loss of the language. He said it was ironic that the Shah dynasty – poised to be ousted by Nepal's parliament – was descended from the Dura people.

And despite the challenge confronting the activists in Nepal, he believes Dura can be rescued for future generations. "Dying languages can indeed be saved," he said. "If people resume raising the children in the ancestral tongue, then the language can be saved. Documenting a language can help, but documented languages can also die, and some dead languages are quite well documented. The key is raising the children in the native tongue of the community and not in the national language."

Experts are unsure of the precise origin of Dura but traditionally it has been placed in the so-called West Bodish group of Tibeto-Burman languages.