RESEARCHING AND DOCUMENTING ENDANGERED LANGUAGES OF KINNAUR (SHUMCHO, JANGRAMI, SUNNAMI, ORAS BOLI)


Contact person: Christian Huber

The district Kinnaur of the State of Himachal Pradesh in the Indian Himalayas has long been known as an area of great linguistic diversity, being the home not only of varieties of Tibetan but also of various West Himalayish and Indo-Aryan languages. All of these languages and dialects, often spoken only in a few villages, are endangered to varying degrees, and many among them are largely undocumented.

The present project, as well as the Phonogrammarchiv’s collection focus on West Himalayish languages, grew out of the Austrian Science Fund project P15046 Documentation of Oral Traditions in Spiti and Upper Kinnaur, which was carried out at the Phonogrammarchiv from September 2001 to June 2004. At that time not much had yet been known about the actual complexity of the language situation in Kinnaur; detected in the 19th century, the languages spoken there afterwards passed into oblivion, and more extensive documentation was available only for Kinnauri. The Oral Traditions project managed to establish contact with speakers from a number of linguistic groups and began the systematic research on Shumcho/Humcho, Jangrami (both West Himalayish), and the Indo-Aryan language of the lower castes in lower Kinnaur. In a follow-up field trip in 2007, research was begun also on the language of the high caste in Sunnam, which is spoken in no other village.

Shumcho/Humcho is spoken by all castes in the region comprising the three villages of Kanam, Labrang and Spillo, while in the Jangram region it is spoken by the lower castes (in Jangi, Lippa and Asrang); it is also spoken in the Ropa valley in Shyaso, Rushkalang and Taling (apparently by all castes) and by the lower caste(s) in Sunnam, where Sunnami is the language of the high caste. Jangrami (Ethnologue: Jangshung) is the language of the high caste in Jangi, Lippa and Asrang. The Indo-Aryan low caste language, sometimes referred to as Oras Boli (Ethnologue: Kinnauri Harijan), is found throughout central and lower Kinnaur in villages where the high caste speaks Kinnauri or Chhitkuli.

As a consequence of modern life finding its way also into remote Himalayan villages, all these languages are under increasing pressure from Hindi. The influence of Hindi, which is the administrative language as well as the language of instruction in schools and also the language of the mass media (TV, Bollywood, newspapers, etc.), can be felt at all levels and constitutes a serious threat to the long-term survival of the small languages. Nowadays all speakers are bilingual with Hindi, and it can already be observed in many places that children are raised exclusively in Hindi and that the local languages are no longer passed on to them – a trend which is not likely to be reversed. Research on these languages together with documentary work is therefore a matter of urgency.

Since previously next to no research has been done on any of these languages, the project engages not only in investigating the lexicon, phonology and grammar (morphology, syntax, semantics) of the respective languages but also in building a body of resources such as an annotated (translated, glossed, analyzed and commented) corpus of recorded “texts” (e.g. narratives, conversations/interviews, etc.) and other linguistic materials that document the language in its actual use in different situations and contexts, accompanied by ancillary videographic documentation. All primary data are collected in fieldwork. The project is thus firmly embedded in the Phonogrammarchiv’s infrastructure: it ensures the combination of fieldwork and research, audio-visual documentation, and archiving under a single roof. Constituting a part of the Phonogrammarchiv’s Himalayan key collection, the project thereby not only contributes to the Phonogrammarchiv’s holdings but interfaces synergetically, and to mutual benefit, with various key areas in the Phonogrammarchiv’s agenda such as fieldwork experience, field recording methodology, or the description and organization of data and audio-visual documentation, and the archiving thereof.

The project’s findings are disseminated in scholarly articles and talks as well as lectures for the general public, and are also made available to the speakers themselves. Data from this research are further utilized in comparative work in international cooperation in order to shed more light on the internal structure of the West Himalayish group of languages.