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The Australian National University

Kusunda in its social context

Social background

The following notes have been abstracted from David Watters' grammatical sketch of Kusunda.

    The Kusundas, also known as Ban Rajas “Kings of the Forest,” are an ethnic group of Nepal who, until recent historical times, lived as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers in central and midwestern Nepal. Nowadays, due to the loss of vast tracts of forest lands their hunting bands have splintered and they have been compelled, because of a lack of marriageable Kusunda partners, to intermarry with other ethnic groups. As a result, their numbers have dwindled drastically and their language has all but ceased to exist.

    Kusundas first came to the attention of the Western world in 1848 when Brian Hodgson, the British Resident to the Court of Nepal, introduced them, together with the Chepangs, in an article in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

    Nine years after his first mention of Kusunda, Hodgson, in his Comparative Vocabulary of the Languages of the Broken Tribes of Nepal (1857), published a list of 223 Kusunda words. The most important consequence of Hodgson’s list was that it (should have) demonstrated unequivocally that Kusunda was unrelated to (Tibeto-Burman) Chepang, or to any other language or language family. It seems that Robert Shafer (1953) was the first to notice its unique status, almost one hundred years later.

    Many linguists agree that Kusunda is very likely the sole survivor of an ancient aboriginal population once inhabiting the sub-Himalayan regions before the arrival of Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan speaking peoples. It is probable that other aboriginal languages existed alongside Kusunda in that prehistoric period, but they have long ceased to exist. Petroglyphs, inscribed on the walls of caves and rock overhangs, can still be found in many parts of Nepal, attesting to the presence of possible multiple aboriginal populations.

    Kusunda survives today, in varying degrees of fluency, in only a handful of speakers — no more than three. According to the 2001 Census of Nepal, 164 people in Nepal call themselves Kusunda.

    Cross-tribal marriage is one of the major contributors to the death of the Kusunda language. Communication between spouses must be conducted in a common language, usually Nepali, and children grow up (at best) with only a passive understanding of a few words in Kusunda, but speaking only Nepali or Kham. Deeper causes, of course, contribute to the necessity of inter-tribal marriage – overpopulation among the general populace, the destruction of vast tracts of forest land, and the resultant splintering of earlier self-sufficient, self-propagating hunting bands being some of the major ones.

    Though the first two words, gwa ‘egg’ and tu ‘bug’ bear resemblance to Magar words with similar meanings, the Magar words are decidedly unusual for Tibeto-Burman. More common TB forms are ba or bwa for ‘chicken,’and bu for ‘bug.’ It is possible that the Magar forms were borrowed from Kusunda.

    Kusunda is related to no other language or language family of South Asia; indeed, as far as we can tell, to no other language on earth – it is a true linguistic “isolate”. There are, to be sure, a few lexical borrowings from surrounding languages, both from Indo-Aryan and from Tibeto-Burman. But all such borrowings are relatively recent and have nothing to do with its genetic lineage.

    The status of some linguistic isolates can be extremely difficult to determine; such languages may have been sufficiently influenced through long-term contact with surrounding languages that they begin to resemble them both grammatically and lexically. The original language provides only a substrate. Kusunda has not escaped at least some such influence, but, by and large, it remains a typological isolate – i.e. it is phonologically, lexically, and grammatically distinct. Thus, we can be reasonably safe in assuming that throughout most of its history Kusunda developed in isolation, and only in recent times has it had contact with other linguistic types.

Updated:  5 July 2012/Responsible Officer:  Mark Donohue /Page Contact:  Mark Donohue