‘Language Death’, Conflict, and Ecology – a Case Study from Nepal

By Mark Turin | Excerpts from a study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) 

The death of a language marks the loss of yet another piece of cultural uniqueness from the mosaic of our diverse planet, and is therefore a tragedy for the heritage of all humanity. Language death is often compared to species extinction, and the same metaphors of preservation and diversity can be invoked to canvas support for biodiversity and language preservation programs. The present article addresses language endangerment in the Himalayas, with a focus on Nepal, [and makes links to ecological peril and regional conflict].

Preserving and Promoting Linguistic Diversity in the Himalayan Region

Why should development workers and scholars be concerned with the extinction of endangered languages? After all, since 96% of the world’s population speak 4% of the world’s languages, and over 1,500 languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, is it feasible or realistic to support minority tongues?

Some monolingual English speakers would have us believe that linguistic diversity is incompatible with the juggernaut of inevitable progress which requires interoperability and smooth international communications across national boundaries. This is simply not the case, particularly in areas such as the Himalayas, where many people are functionally tri- or quadri-lingual, speaking an ethnic or tribal mother tongue at home, a different language in the local market town, conversing in Nepali at school or in dealings with the administration, and often using an international language (or two) in dealings with the outside world. Nepal is a perfect case in point: an individual might speak Chintang at home, Bantawa in the bazaar, learn Nepali at school, speak Hindi when visiting a regional city and write in English to chat with friends online.

We should not forget that the monolingualism of much of the First World is as provincial as it is historically anomalous…Human languages are not evenly distributed across the world: there are relatively few in Europe compared to an abundance in the Pacific, and the greater Himalayan region is in part home to such linguistic diversity because the mountains act as a natural barrier to mobility and communication (Figure 8).

The need to prevent language death

There are four clear reasons for supporting, preserving, and documenting endangered languages, aside from the fact that in themselves, languages are interesting:

  • First, each and every language is a celebration of the rich cultural diversity of our planet and the extinction of each mother tongue heralds the end of another slice of cultural uniqueness.
  • Second, every language is an expression of a unique ethnic, social, regional, cultural identity and worldview, or Weltanschauung, as German philosophers have called it. When a language dies, the framework through which an individual interprets and interacts in the world in which he lives goes with it.
  • Third, an individual language is the repository of the history and beliefs of a people, and these oral traditions are rarely translated into the dominant language when the tongue in which they were created is on the cusp of disappearance.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly to a conservation and biodiversity readership, every language encodes a particular subset of fragile human knowledge about agriculture, botany, medicine, and ecology.

Mother tongues are comprised of far more than grammar and words. For example, Thangmi (known in Nepali as Thami), a Tibeto-Burman language spoken by an ethnic community of around 30,000 people in eastern Nepal, is a mine of unique indigenous terms for local flora and fauna that have medical and ritual value. Much of this local knowledge is falling into disuse as fluency in Nepali, the national language, increases. When children cease to speak their mother tongue, the oral transmission of specific ethnobotanical and medical knowledge also comes to an end.

Once again, as these communities become increasingly marginalised and their traditional livelihoods endangered, the local knowledge which they hold may be lost to posterity in the process. Only in exceptional circumstances are indigenous languages and the knowledge systems which they encode documented, transcribed, and translated for the benefit of future generations.

Language and ecology: an intimate relationship

Linguistic diversity is an integral component in ecological stability and the fabric of cultural life, and we should remember that the evolution of a species or a language takes much longer than its extinction. Languages, like species, adapt to and reflect their environment. The Thangmi language, spoken in a highly mountainous region where topography is challenging, has 4 semantically distinct verbs that are translated into English as “to come:”

  • yusa ‘to come from above (down the mountain)’
  • wangsa ‘to come from below (or up the mountain)’
  • kyelsa ‘to come from level or around a natural obstacle’
  • rasa ‘to come from an unspecified or unknown direction’.

In such instances, language mirrors ecology, and ecology can also reflect the linguistic and cultural forms of the people who inhabit a specific niche. The languages and cultures of millions of indigenous peoples of the Himalayas are now endangered in part because their traditional homelands and ecological habitats are under threat. In the powerfully written Vanishing Voices (2000), Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine make an explicit link between environmental issues and the survival of languages. They argue that the extinction of languages is part of the larger picture of the near-total collapse of the worldwide ecosystem, and suggest that the struggle to preserve environmental resources, such as the rainforests and unique ethnobotanical knowledge, cannot be separated from the struggle to maintain cultural and linguistic diversity.

The causes of language death and ecological destruction, in their view, are political. Nettle and Romaine support their argument with an intriguing correlation: language diversity is inversely related to latitude, and areas rich in languages also tend to be rich in ecology and species. As we are slowly discovering, both biodiversity and linguistic diversity are concentrated between the tropics and in inaccessible environments, such as the Himalayan region, while diversity of all forms trails off in deserts.

Around the world, there is a high level of co-occurrence of flora, fauna, and languages, and humid tropical climates, forested areas, and mountainous regions are especially favourable to biological and linguistic diversification.

Data from Nepal appear to support this trend: the country is home to over 5,400 species of higher plants and 850 species of birds, 2.2% and 9.4% of the world’s totals, respectively. This particularly high level of biodiversity per unit area is matched by a similar degree of linguistic variation.

Whatever one’s position on the interrelatedness of biological and linguistic diversity, one result is uncontested: languages are increasingly described as valuable ‘resources’ to be protected, promoted, and developed by governments. Distinct from but deployed in a similar manner to discussions about water, fossil fuels, and manpower resources, linguistic resources are an integral component of a nation’s rich, intangible heritage. As discretely summed up by UNESCO, “cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”.

Language and Conflict: Maoists, Politics, and Sanskrit

The deployment of language issues in public arenas, whether ethnic or national, can quickly become very politicised. The demands of linguistic minorities in Nepal for education in their mother tongues has been as much about basic linguistic rights as a call for recognition and participation in the modern nation-state.

Ethnic and linguistic differences are also quick to be invoked in times of conflict. In Nepal, the violent conflict between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and state security forces which claimed over 15,000 lives between 1996 and 2006, tapped into the pre-existing concerns of ethnic and linguistic minorities. It is beyond a doubt that the marginalisation of Nepal’s disadvantaged communities and ethnic groups was one of the root causes of the Maoist insurgency.

The teaching of Sanskrit has also been an inflammatory topic in contemporary Nepal. Sanskrit, the liturgical and classical language of India, to which modern spoken languages such as Hindi and Nepali are related, is intimately associated with Hindu Nepali identity. In both popular and scholarly writings, the Sanskrit language is often held up as the pinnacle of sophistication… By implication, languages which are not Sanskrit-related are therefore not cultured, or at least lower on this imagined scale.

It is little surprise, then, that anti-Sanskritism has been one of the rallying cries of leftist groups, and one which finds favour with almost all indigenous people who see Sanskrit as the linguistic embodiment of a hegemonic heritage which they do not share.

Sanskrit was, until fairly recently, the only language in Nepal for which government scholarships were available for university-level study, despite the fact that Sanskrit can not really be counted as a mother tongue vernacular for anyone in Nepal.

Promoting Diversity at All Levels

The preservation of a language in its fullest sense entails the maintenance of the speech community. Reversing language death therefore requires the preservation of the culture and habitat in which a language is spoken. While many of the languages spoken as mother tongues in the Himalayas today will likely only survive as second languages in the coming years, that is in itself no small feat. Supporting minority languages and halting linguistic decline must become an integral element in securing the sustainable livelihoods of diverse mountain peoples.

Integrated development programs which focus on the vulnerability of marginalized peoples in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region should introduce a component of support for the languages which are presently under threat.


About the author

I am an anthropologist, linguist and occasional radio presenter; an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Chair of the First Nations and Endangered Languages Program and Acting Co-Director of the University’s new Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. I also hold an appointment as Visiting Associate Professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and served as the Founding Program Director of the Yale Himalaya Initiative from 2011-2014. Together with Sienna Craig, I edit Himalaya, the longest running, open access, interdisciplinary and peer-reviewed journal of Himalayan studies. I have been a visiting scholar at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok, Sikkim, where I initiated the first modern linguistic survey of Sikkim.


The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is an independent ‘Mountain Learning and Knowledge Centre’ serving the eight countries of the Hindu Kush-Himalayas – Afghanistan , Bangladesh , Bhutan , China , India , Myanmar , Nepal , and Pakistan – and the global mountain community. Founded in 1983, ICIMOD is based in Kathmandu, Nepal, and brings together a partnership of regional member countries, partner institutions, and donors with a commitment for development action to secure a better future for the people and environment of the extended Himalayan region. ICIMOD’s activities are supported by its core programme donors: the governments of Austria, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and its regional member countries, along with over thirty project co–financing donors. The primary objective of the Centre is to promote the development of an economically and environmentally sound mountain ecosystem and to improve the living standards of mountain populations.