It turns out I was wrong. Partly.
Following the stunning success of my earlier articles, I have invested countless additional hours in conducting fieldwork with my Pinnacle Sherpa friends. As in the past, this fieldwork has been done entirely in absentia. With scant resources for plane tickets, and confined to the house by the upcoming Iowa winter, my contacts with the Pinnacle Sherpa community have been limited to phone calls, Skype, and various forms of instant messaging and SMS.
This further research has revealed an amazing and unprecedented development in Pinnacle Sherpa, of which I had not hitherto been cognizant. Instead of a single language used by the youngest generation (which I called Mediated Modern Pinnacle Sherpa), and a single language used by the older generations (which I called Classical Pinnacle Sherpa), there are now actually four languages concurrently in use.
Mediated Modern Pinnacle Sherpa (MMPS), as I reported earlier, is used by youth who are often separated from each other by great distances on mountain trails. This community of “speakers” has come to prefer texting over speech, to the point that they in fact don’t ever speak, but always text, even when face to face. Their writing system has become logographic.
However, I did not know until recently that there is another group of young people who shun trekking and other forms of strenuous activity and spend most of their time exercising their WII and PSP skills in a community room in the Pinnacle Village. This group shows universal indifference to literacy and uses Pinnacle Sherpa exclusively orally. Thus, we may refer to their language as “Oral Modern Pinnacle Sherpa” (OMPS).
Among the older speakers, I reported earlier that Classical Pinnacle Sherpa (CPS) is used as a secret language (see Slater 2010b for discussion of its amazing undoing of prior historical changes). However, I have now discovered that this language, too, has undergone a split between Oral and Mediated varieties.
Most oldsters use Classical Pinnacle Sherpa purely in the Oral mode—thus, we call their language “Oral Classical Pinnacle Sherpa” (OCPS). However, there are four rather antisocial middle aged people who, for reasons which it may be best not to discuss here, refuse to leave their homes or to relate to anyone else in their own age cohort. These four individuals seem to feel a sort of common bond, and they spend literally hours on the telephone with each other. Their language, therefore, may be called “Mediated Classical Pinnacle Sherpa” (MCPS).
In the normal situation, we might not expect these four varieties to be called different “languages,” and in truth up until last week I was hesitant to do so. But close investigation (using webcams) revealed that the four speech communities not only have entirely distinct membership, but in fact, they utterly refuse to speak to each other at all. They take this so far that, if a member of any of the other language varieties is even in the same house, only English or Nepali can be used.
Thus, although taking a purely linguistic perspective might lead us to expect that these four varieties are probably mutually intelligible, in fact it is wholly impossible to test this hypothesis, as no speaker is willing to use their version of Pinnacle Sherpa outside of their own speech community. And in the case of MMPS, this would be impossible anyway, since none of the other subgroups would be able to access the MMPS code.
Therefore, on the basis of the impossibility of testing for intelligibility, we must conclude that these four varieties are in fact unintelligible, and therefore that they constitute four distinct languages.
Furthermore, I believe that this split of one parent into four daughters is also unprecedented in a language community so small. The original Pinnacle Sherpa community had only 38 speakers, and the four daughters OMPS, MMPS, OCPS and MCPS have ten, twelve, twelve and four speakers, respectively.
Finally, there is the fascinating question of how to draw an adequate family tree for what we must now refer to as the Pinnacle Sherpa Branch of Southern Tibetan. The two MPS daughters are no real problem, and we can symbolize them as traditional downward branching descendants from Pinnacle Sherpa, as in Figure 1:
When we try to add Classical Pinnacle Sherpa, however, we run into a graphical problem. Recall that CPS is undergoing a systematic undoing of its historical changes, such that it is becoming an older language, moving in the direction of Proto-
However, the situation is even more problematic when we consider that, above PS in the diagram, we cannot only add CPS; rather, we need to symbolize a splitting of Oral and Mediated Classical Pinnacle Sherpa varieties into two separate languages. Since this has never previously occurred in any human language, we have no standard notation for it. Figure 3 gives an attempt to create such a notation, showing that Oral and Mediated Classical Pinnacle Sherpa are in a sense sisters to Proto-
The dotted lines symbolize these two languages’ direct relationship with Proto-
Again, as has been repeatedly the case with the surprising Pinnacle Sherpa community, we are confronted here with an entirely novel situation: twin versions of a protolanguage which vary from one another only modally and which can both equally claim to be descendants of, and parents to, their ancestor.