20 Dec /12

Last daughter of the forest

minority language KusundaThe Ethnologue, the most frequently referenced linguistic catalogue, tells us that 6 per cent of the world’s languages have at least one million speakers. Together these languages are spoken by over six and a half billion people, or 94 per cent of the world’s population. For less prominent languages the statistic is reversed; the remaining 94% of languages – over 6,000 of them – are spoken by only 6 per cent of us.

Many of these minority languages are under threat, perhaps none more than that of the Kusunda, the smallest ethnic group in Nepal. The Kusunda are also known as “Ban Rajas” (Kings of the Forest). Originally nomads, the tribe was forced to disperse when deforestation took away their home.

Little by little the tribe has disappeared. Now only one Kusunda native remains, 75-year-old Gyani Maiya Sen. She left the forest at the age of ten and is now the subject of fevered attention from linguists attempting to document her language before it’s too late.

Even leaving aside cultural arguments, there are good economic reasons to preserve minority languages. Approximately 75 per cent of the plant-based drugs in use today were discovered by practitioners of native medicine. These peoples’ methods might be considered primitive but their knowledge of natural remedies has benefited all of us, and that knowledge has largely been communicated in languages which are now in danger of dying out.

There are reasons for optimism, though. In Namibia, village elders are using mobile technology to reach out to their younger generations. Research indicates that young people often decide between the ages of 16 and 25 whether or not to persist with their native language. Elders of the Hereros tribe have seen their children leave for cities, never to return. Now they’re working side by side with academics from Denmark, using mobile tablets to build a language app.

Even more encouragingly, many young people are taking responsibility for their indigenous languages themselves. In the Philippines, teenagers are preserving regional languages such as Kapampangan and Huave by using them in frequent text messages, and young Chileans are using YouTube to post videos in Huilliche, a language previously thought to be dying. Now the users of Huilliche can speak to the world.

These projects combining traditional linguistics and modern technology strike a chord with EVS Translations. Our project management embraces cutting edge formatting and translation memory software, overseen by skilled industry specialists. We recognise that this combination delivers the best possible results for clients across all industries. Preservation of traditional skills through modern methods works. It works for us, it works for our clients and it can also work for the world’s indigenous languages

Gyani Maiya Sen is a mother and a grandmother, but her son and daughter rejected the Kusunda language because they didn’t believe it served any purpose. As the years passed, Sen’s disappointment as a parent must have been compounded by the disappointment of a native speaker with no one left to speak to. But now Kusunda along with Kapampangan, Huave and Huilliche may be saved by a new generation.

The words of the last daughter of the forest may yet live on.