Linguistics in political timesThe biodiversity of languages in Nepal, where 123 languages are spoken, is of universal interest.
The Linguistic Society of Nepal held its 42nd annual conference at Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur via zoom on November 26-27, 2021. It was addressed by academics, writers and language researchers, and participated in by linguists from home and abroad. This conference was happening at a time when tens of thousands of people were converging on a location to hold a political jamboree, and similar other meetings are in waiting. These are political times. As an insider, memories of the Linguistic Society have inundated me. I feel how important this academic, voluntary and prestigious organisation has continued to work despite the hardships of the times and the challenges of history. I realise the continuum maintained by this society is the result of this organisation's modus operandi. It always remained outside the influence of those who use organisations either as political platforms or as a means of unfairly earning money. It has survived because it is not aligned to either.
The Linguistic Society of Nepal was formed by academics in 1979 and the same people maintained its continuity sans money, sans power and sans political influences. This is a unique phenomenon for any such organisation in Nepal to exist productively for this length of time, and grow from strength to strength undeterred by the above factors. Nirmal Man Tuladhar, now professor emeritus, reminded me once again how challenging it was for us then to keep the society going. I was the sixth president of this society from 1990-92 and Tuladhar was the seventh. We worked in tandem and shared both agonies and ecstasies. Here I am only recalling our mutual experience, not attempting to narrate the stories of the society, which is not possible here. I recall how after the political change of 1990, I had alluded at the annual conference address to a unique phenomenon of the way democratic political leaders had glibly started using Panchayat-time honorifics in their use of language. That trend was reflected later in the very texture of the controversial hierarchical language used in politics.
One phenomenon that we experienced then has almost become a structure of the nature of the spontaneous participation of scholars from the Indic region and the West. The strong presence of scholars from Nepal, India and the West has continued to shape the structure of the participation even to this day. The society should be given credit for creating an atmosphere and condition for the establishment of the Central Department of Linguistics at Tribhuvan University in 1996. A number of prominent Nepali linguists, some of whom have also been giving leadership to this society, became part of the various linguistic projects of Nepal at the official and non-official levels. These are important linguistic scholars whose names cannot be mentioned here for lack of space.
The other important dynamism created by this society is the culture and practice of pedagogy and field research. Those who have contributed their labour have also been responsible for widening the sphere of linguistic scholarship in modern times. A number of prominent foreign scholars who made studies in Tibeto-Burman linguistics should be remembered today. They are Dr Austen Hale, the late Dr RK Sprigg who came to attend the conferences with his accoutrements including a Scottish bagpipe which, I wrote earlier, "resonated in Kirtipur’s autumnal mellow evenings each year", the late Alfons Weidert, George van Driem, Boyd Michailovsky and Sueyoshi Toba, to mention a few prominent names.
The current conference covered the principal areas of linguistics as in the past. The diversity was maintained. It covered areas like phonetics and phonology, morphology, syntax, language teaching, psycholinguistics, language archiving, sociolinguistics, computational linguistics and visual linguistics in both English and Nepali mediums. That is nearly an exhaustive list of linguistic topics. The conference also addressed issues, though I could not attend them all, related to anxiety and solutions. The dominant elements in linguistic anxieties are related to a binary process of growth and decay. This has always been the case in linguistic studies. Such anxiety has propelled linguists to go out in search of those that are in the process of loss. The growth part is the expansion of certain areas and languages. But in this binary we have always noticed a process of loss and domination. It makes the protection and archiving of languages an urgent need. It is akin to the protection of biodiversity.
Speaking at the valedictory session at the invitation of Krishna Prasad Chalise, president of the Linguistic Society of Nepal, I said the linguists' mantra of protection is to research, archive, accentuate and involve the concerned state mechanism in that process. But this has always been a binary, a process that has close similarities with the ecological phenomenon because languages too grow, decay and die, and calls for the need to take measures for urgent protection. The biodiversity of languages especially in a country like Nepal where 123 languages are spoken is a matter of universal interest. (The Language Commission has identified eight more languages.) Like the Nepali biodiversity that is constituted by different altitudes and geographical features, linguistic diversity too is constituted by similar features of altitude, anthropomorphism and geography. Let us call it linguistic biodiversity. Some languages have become precious species, like the plants and animals that need urgent protection. They have been in existence for different lengths of time. They don't cry for help; they need to be discovered and protected.
Political transformations in Nepal have created great awareness, mainly about the sociolinguistic studies that have created awareness about the use of languages alongside research work. Among the several areas impacted by such transformations is the awareness about one's native tongue and the application and innovation of mother tongue education. The Linguistic Society always brings on board the concerned people who are responsible for the studies and archiving of languages. Though it does not have enough time for lengthy discussions, a Linguistic Society of Nepal conference functions as a trigger. As an insider, what I can say is that such dynamism was created and promoted by the Linguistic Society of Nepal even when the conditions were not easy before the restoration of democracy in 1990. I would like to close by repeating some lines from my keynote address given at the 34th annual conference of the Linguistic Society of Nepal held at the academy in 2013:
"Linguistics is such a subject that opens avenues of freedom and learning, and does not have any specific teleology. To represent that dynamic, the Linguistic Society of Nepal has chosen the befitting modus operandi, which is one of free research, passionate engagement with the subject and rejoicing in the achievements and findings of big and ordinary nature. The cohort of linguists of different generations present here is proof of that optimism and the raison d'être of our humble yet great efforts to advance productively and meaningfully."