In a video produced by Cambridge University, anthropologist Mark Turin discusses his work helping speakers of Thangmi, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in eastern Nepal. He aims to document disappearing languages, most of which haven’t been written down before, as part of the World Oral Literature Project.
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Dr Mark Turin in the Independent. Dr Turin is a linguistic anthropologist specialised in the Himalayas:
In the beginning, there was only water. The gods held a meeting to decide how to develop this vast expanse. First they created a type of small insect, but these insects couldn’t find a place to live since there was only water and no solid land. Consequently, the gods created fish which could live in the water. The insects took to living on the fins of the fish, which stuck far enough out of the water to allow the insects to breathe. The insects collected river grass and mixed it with mud in order to build dwellings on the fins of the fish in each of the four directions: south, west, north, and east.
Then a lotus flower arose spontaneously out of the water, with the god Vishnu seated in the middle. Out of the four directions of the lotus flower came an army of ants. The ants killed all of the fish-dwelling insects and destroyed their houses. The ants took the mud that the insects had used for their dwellings and left, gathering another species of grass as they went. They mixed this with the mud to construct new houses. Then the snake deities arose. It was still dark, so the sun was created. More:
Also in the Independent:
The beckoning silence: Why half of the world’s languages are in serious danger of dying out
In a small office room in the back of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology – a place in which you almost expect Harrison Ford to walk around the corner at any moment, fedora on head, whip in hand – Turin looks over the contents of a box that arrived earlier in the morning from India. “[The receptionists] are quite used to getting these boxes now,” says the 36-year-old anthropologist, who is based at the university. Inside the box, which is covered in dozens of rupee postage stamps, are DVDs representing hours of chants, songs, poems and literature from a tiny Indian community that is desperate for its language to have a voice and be included in Turin’s venture.
For many of these communities, the oral tradition is at the heart of their culture. The stories they tell are creative works as well as communicative. Unlike the languages with celebrated written traditions, such as Sanskrit, Hebrew and Ancient Greek, few indigenous communities – from the Kallawaya tribe in Bolivia and the Maka in Paraguay to the Siberian language of Chulym, to India’s Arunachal Pradesh state Aka group and the Australian Aboriginal Amurdag community – have recorded their own languages or ever had them recorded. Until now. Turin launched the World Oral Literature Project earlier this year with an aim to document and make accessible endangered languages before they disappear without trace. More:
To see and hear recordings of the Thangmi in Nepal, click here.