As Gyani Maiya Sen nears the end of her life she worries that her final words may the last ever spoken in her mysterious mother tongue.
The 76-year-old, part of a vanishing tribe in remote western Nepal, is the only surviving speaker of Kusunda, a language of unknown origins and unique sentence structures that has long baffled experts.
“There’s no one else with whom I can speak in my language. I used to speak with my mother, but since her death in 1985, I am left alone,” she said by telephone.
Yet the frail, gnarled tribeswoman is the focus of renewed interest among linguists across the world who are trying to ensure her language survives in some form after she has gone.
Sen’s Kusunda tribe, now just 100 members strong, were once a nomadic people, but she has found herself living out her twilight years in a concrete bungalow built by local authorities in Dang District, western Nepal.
“How can I forget the language I grew up learning? I used to speak it when I was a child. Even now, I wish I could talk to someone who understands my language,” Sen said in Nepali.
Nepal, wedged between China and India, is home to more than 100 ethnic groups speaking as many languages and linguists say at least 10 have disappeared in recent decades.
UNESCO lists 61 of Nepal’s languages as endangered, meaning they are falling out of use, and six, including Kusunda, as “critically endangered.”
“Language is part of culture. When it disappears, the native speakers will not only lose their heritage and history, but they will also lose their identity,” Tribhuvan University linguistics professor Madhav Prasad Pokharel said.
“Kusunda is unique because it is not related to any other language in the world. It is also not influenced by other languages,” Pokharel said. “In linguistic terms we call it a language isolate.”
Until recently, there were two other native speakers of Kusunda, Puni Thakuri and her daughter Kamala Khatri, but Puni died two years ago and Kamala migrated to India for work, leaving Sen the sole surviving native speaker.
Tribhuvan University, in Kathmandu, started up a project 10 years ago to document and preserve Kusunda, inviting Thakuri and Khatri to the Nepalese capital. However, as the money ran out, the research ground to a halt.
The project has been given new life by Bhojraj Gautam, a student of Pokharel who recently spent months recording Sen speaking, and gaining the knowledge to speak basic Kusunda himself in the process.
As part of the project, funded by the Australian Research Council, Gautam has written down the entire language and the outcome, he said, will eventually be a Kusunda dictionary and a comprehensive grammar.
Kusunda, incorrectly first classified as a Tibeto-Burman language, has three vowels and 15 consonants, and reflects the history and culture of its people.
“They call themselves myahq, which means ‘tiger.’ That’s because they think themselves as the kings of forests,” Pokharel said.
The origins of the Kusunda people have never been established, but they are believed to have lived in the midwestern hills of what is now Nepal for hundreds of years.
They traditionally rely on hunting to survive and are adept at using arrows and bows for killing wild animals, with lizards and wild fowl being their meal of choice.
Pokharel said Kusundas have no equivalent of the word “green” because the forest-dwellers are surrounded by vegetation and do not recognize greenery as something that needs its own word.
The tribe has been dying out for decades, with women marrying outside the blood line, and the language is perishing with it as many take to speaking Nepali.
“The native speakers shifted to other languages. Factors such as marriage outside their tribe, migration and modernization also contributed to the loss,” Pokharel said.
When King Mahendra dismissed the elected government in 1960 and put in its place an autocratic, partyless system which would govern Nepal for the next 30 years, the use of languages other than Nepali was discouraged.
With the end of a decade-long Maoist insurgency in 2006 and a revived focus on the rights of minorities, indigenous people have started to preserve their language and culture.
While it may be too late for Kusunda, Pokharel said a national institution was needed to try to protect Nepal’s other dying languages.
“Transferring language to a non-native speaker is important and indeed the only way to save it,” Pokharel said.