Describing and documenting Kusunda
We are working at supplementing, and extending, the materials in Watters (2006), by working with the last speakers of Kusunda to check grammatical patterns, and to amass a corpus of naturalistic materials, along with making accessible recordings of the language.
Prof. Pokharel had already worked on Kusunda for periods in the 1990s and more intensively in 2004/2005, when three Kusunda speakers were brought to Nepal for three months of intensive work, following the discovery that the language was still spoken (see Watters 2006 for an account of this). While Gyani Maiya had experience working with linguists before, neither Bhojraj nor Mark had experience working with Kusunda.
The first two members of the team, Prof. Madhav Pokharel and Dr. Mark Donohue, met in November 2011 in Kathmandu, and agreed to initiate a project to obtain new and digital data on the language by working directly with speakers in western Nepal. This was initiated as part of Mark Donohue's project that aims at improving our understanding of social history in the Himalayas and surrounding regions through linguistic analaysis. Prof. Pokharel in turn contacted Bhojraj Gautam, a recently completed graduate from the Central Department of Linguistics at Tribhuvan University, and after collecting and collating the materials on Kusunda that were to be found about the university they went off together to contact speakers in Dang and Rolpa districts in Western Nepal. After locating Gyani Maiya Sen in Lamahi, and learning of her enthusiasm for working with the team, Bhojraj moved to Lamahi and began intensive work with her, under the direction of Prof. Pokharel and Dr. Donohue.
Our work has concentrated on confirming the wordlist in Watters (2006) and on collecting a corpus of naturalistic speech: procedural narratives and accounts of Gyani Maiya's personal life and recollections of her early life in the western Nepal hills. Since she had not been speaking the language for several years it was initially difficult for Gyani Maiya to feel comfortable to keep talking to Bhojraj in Kusunda, but as Bhojraj became more and more capable of interacting in the language Gyani Maiya's fluency notably improved. You can now listen to Gyani Maiya producing a number of daily conversational phrases, and we hope to make full narratives accessible in the near future.
While we are pleased with the progress we have made, it is clear that much of the analysis of Kusunda that has appeared in Watters (2006) is the result of having been elicited, and does not surface in such categorial ways in naturalistic speech. As such, there is still much to learn about the structure of this most intriguing language.