On the "Mother Tongue" of Byans, Far Western Nepal

Dr Katsuo Nawa

Sunday, 15 December, 2002; 7:30-9:30pm

Chetwynd Room, King's College

This presentation provides first a brief overview of the linguistic situation of Byans, Far Western Nepal and secondly, proposes the possibility that descriptive, classificatory terms such as "Mother tongue" fail to represent the linguistic complexity of this region. During the course of this talk, both "Mother tongue" itself and various categorisations and narratives on the term are investigated. Byans is the geographical region of the uppermost valley of the Mahakali (Kali) River that constitutes the western border between India and Nepal. The main inhabitants of this valley, who call themselves Rang, retain their own culture, society, and traditions, despite the influence of both Tibetan Buddhism to the north and Hinduism to the south.
Though linguists classify the spoken language of this region as "Byansi" or "Byanshi," the language itself can more accurately be described as a grouping of several, in some cases mutually unintelligible lects. The people of this region call their language "Rang boli" or, less commonly, "Rang lwo" in Byansi. But what they name "Rang boli" does however not consist of a single, coherent linguistic system. "Rang boli" for them refers to the lects of Byans as well as to the two distinct "languages" spoken in Indian Himalayan regions just west of Byans, Chaudansi and Darmiya. To complicate further this linguistic description we must take into consideration that the people in Byan are polyglots who daily speak fluently more than one language. Consequently, the multilingualism of this region affects greatly the descriptive parameters of "Rang boli" in matters such as borrowing and code mixing. Among the people of Byans the linguistic predicament of "Rang boli" is widely discussed in Rang bo! li by sometimes employing the loanword, "Matr bhasa" (mother tongue).
This very complicated linguistic system, I want to urge, should cause us to reconsider the concept of mother tongue itself. First, linguistically speaking, the first language of a Rang is not necessarily the same as that spoken by his or her mother. That is, there can be considerable lexical and grammatical differences between one's "Mother tongue" and one's mother language, and at least here, we may judge the term "Mother tongue" inadequate as an analytical category. Second, differences among lects as conceptualized by Rangs is not comparable to how they view differences among languages, such as Nepali, Hindi and English; the latter are seen as discrete, separate languages, the former are variants, although sometimes linguistically incommensurable, of the same language. Finally, when the people of this region use "Mother tongue" (matr bhasa) to refer to the linguistic situation of Rang boli, they do so knowing full well that their Rang boli (matr bhasa) is linguistically differe! nt from that of their mothers. In effect, despite its deficiencies, they have borrowed an imperfect linguistic term of Western origin (matr bhasa) from Nepali and Hindi, and the impact of their use of this term is not well served by the normative description of Byansi as the "Mother tongue" of the people of Byans.