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  • A language kept alive on life support, literally

    82 year old Soma Devi Dura is the last speaker of Dura, the traditional language of the Dura people living in the Western Region of Nepal. Soma Devi is mostly deaf and blind. She doesn’t feel like talking much, and according to Nepali actuarial tables, she may not last long. So one linguist wants to put Dura and its last surviving speaker on life support.

    As a boy, Kedar Bilash Nagila played with Dura children who had already lost their language. Now he’s a graduate student studying Dura, and he’s trying to take the last Dura speaker, who like many of the Dura is also named Dura, to the capital, Kathmandu, for medical treatment and a couple of hearing aids. Drugs should allow Soma Devi to hang on for a while. And with special audiological equipment she may be able to hear Nagila, who hopes she will add to the database of 1,500 Dura words and 250 sentences that he has already compiled in his effort to make sure that Dura survives after she’s gone.

    Soma Devi Dura 
    As Monty Python might put it, “I’m not dead yet”: Soma Devi Dura, the last speaker of Dura

    The only other known speaker of Dura died in August, 2007, which means there’s no one left for Soma Devi to speak Dura to, even if she could hear them, not even Nagila, who doesn’t really speak the language he’s trying to preserve. Soma Devi’s husband and six children, and the other 3,389 Dura left in Nepal, speak only the national language, Khas, also called Nepali, and one language atlas has already declared Dura extinct.

    Most of the other languages of Nepal, including Kusunda, Dumi, Raji, Raute and Baram, are also in bad shape, and it has been estimated that 96 per cent of the 126 Nepalese languages may soon go the way of Dura.

    Another Nepali linguist cooperating with the effort to save both the last speaker of Dura and Dura itself, told the Kathmandu Post, “In case anything happens to Soma Devi, the entire effort to preserve the endangered language will receive a jolt."

    That’s putting it mildly. If the last speaker of the language dies or can no longer communicate, that doesn’t give language preservationists much to go on, since speaking a language requires tens of thousands of words and an infinite number of sentences, not 1,500 words and only 250 ways to arrange them using flash cards. Without a Vulcan mind meld, it looks like Dura will join the list of languages that have died without a trace.

    Languages go extinct for a variety of reasons. All the speakers of a language could be wiped out in one catastrophic event – just like the meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. But in most cases, speakers give up one language for another, either voluntarily, because the other language proves more useful economically or socially, or under duress, because they’re forced to do so by someone more powerful.

    Meteor destroying dinosuars 

    One way to kill a language: blow it up with a meteor. But even with the meteor, dinosaurs hung on for millennia before they were supplanted by mammals.

    And in most cases, language loss is gradual. Meteors notwithstanding, languages don’t die overnight. What happened to Dura is what happens to most endangered languages: parents stopped speaking Dura to their children; teachers used Khas, also called Nepali, in school, because Nepal’s government said they had to; and many Dura moved from the Himalayan hillsides to the bright-lights-big-city of Kathmandu, where they picked up Nepali along with other markers of sophistication.

    Preservationists argue that when a language dies, a little bit of the world’s culture dies with it. Yes, and every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. It's one thing to study language, another to romanticize it, ascribing to an exotic tongue mystical properties and metaphysical insights just because the language is so rare.

    It’s true that every tongue has its own way of putting “what’s out there” into words, and studying the idiosyncrasies we find in the world’s languages gives us some insight into the nature of language and its relation to culture and the mind. But to give each language its own lock on reality suggests that we live in multiple separate universes and denies the possibility of translation, not to mention tourism or climbing very high mountains with the help of Sherpa guides.

    And speaking of Sherpa, one cynic has suggested that Dura would have thrived if only the lowland-dwelling Dura had been better climbers. Some 130,000 Sherpas in Eastern Nepal continue to speak their language, despite the thinness of the air, in part because mountaineers believe that they can’t get to Shangri-la without a Sherpa or two to appease the mountain gods. If Kedar Nagila needs to find another dissertation topic, he might consider looking into the connection between language loyalty and the tourist trade.

    Lamjung satellite map 
    Satellite map of Lamjung, alt. 4376’, the main city of the Dura district, in the Western region of Nepal. The Dura are farmers, not climbers.

    It’s always a sad event when someone dies, but there’s something ghoulish or at best unethical about people gathering by the bedside simply because someone’s taking a language with them. Our concern for the loss of a language threatens to overshadow the human loss. We’re tempted to trivialize the story as the Kathmandu Post does with its headline, “With 1 surviving speaker, Dura going dodo way.”

    It’s as if the only reason for anyone to go out of their way to help Soma Devi is that she’s the last speaker of her language. There are other elderly, deaf and frail Dura in Soma Devi’s village, but they’re not being rushed to the capital for treatment, because they speak Nepali, not Dura, which is exactly what the government wanted them to do.

    It’s too bad that whatever special sounds and idioms Dura possesses will die with Soma Devi, but Dura’s death warrant was signed long ago, and no last minute phone call from the governor will reverse it. The death of Dura is partly due to natural causes, as parents pushed their children to adopt a language of wider communication. And it’s partly due to the government’s Nepali-only language policy, which was put in place by the Shah dynasty, who have ruled the country since the 18th century and who also happen to be non-Dura-speaking descendants of the Dura.

    As for the last-ditch efforts at language preservation, while their intent is noble, adding a few more words to the Dura lexicon won’t keep the language going. Soma Devi has lived her life as a Dura speaking Dura, but she doesn’t hold the secrets of the universe, and she can’t lead us to a magical Himalayan plant that will cure cancer any more than wolfsbane harvested in the Swiss Alps during the full moon can cure lycanthropy.

    Wolf Man still
    Maria Ouspenskaya tells Lon Cheney, Jr., “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers at night may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” [The Wolf Man, (1941)]

    And Soma Devi may not be able, or even willing, to add to Kedar Nagila’s Dura word list even if she does get some of her hearing back. She may prefer simply to go about her business, talking, or not, as she sees fit, in Dura or more likely, in Nepali, which after all is the language that she’s always used with her husband and children, not to mention most everyone else she interacts with.

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