The Language of Prehistory—Merritt Greenberg and Joseph Ruhlen SpecGram Vol CLI, No 4 Contents Eating the Wind—An Anthropological Linguistic Study of the Xoŋry—Claude Searsplainpockets

Evidential Complexity and Language Loss in Pinnacle Sherpa

Keith Slater1
Lanzhou, China


In this paper I describe an unprecedented situation of language loss: that which is found in Pinnacle Sherpa. The language has been completely lost by the oldest and middle-aged segments of the population, but is strongly maintained by the young. The loss is due to exponential increases in the complexity of the Pinnacle Sherpa evidential system, which have rendered older speakers unable to adequately indicate the source of information in their utterances.

Pinnacle Sherpa, a Bodic language of Nepal, has not been described before. Over the past couple of years, bored with my day job, I have been conducting fieldwork2 on Pinnacle Sherpa (hereafter PS), and have discovered a heretofore undescribed pattern of language loss. This paper describes that pattern, and also gives an account of the surprising factors which have led to its emergence.

According to the universal testimony of PS speakers, and also my own observations, the community is undergoing language loss at a startling rate, with results amounting to a sort of inverted language death. Language vitality is strongest among the younger members of the community; in fact, use of the

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PS language decreases sharply in each age grouping, such that speakers in their middle-age years are willing to use the language only to describe their own personal history (never discussing current events, for example), while elderly people flatly refuse to use the language at all, for any purpose. Even if spoken to in PS, elderly people consistently reply in English or Nepali.

This inverted situation of apparent language death is, of course, quite unique in the modern world. Normally, one would expect pressure from a trade or education language (such as Nepali or English in the PS situation) to lead to language loss among the younger generations, not the older ones. In fact, it is internal, not external, pressure which is driving the loss of PS, and this accounts for the unprecedented pattern of loss which PS presents.

The key to this extraordinary situation is the inordinately complex PS evidential system. At first glance, this system is breathtakingly complex, with over 800 recorded evidential distinctions. Evidentiality is obligatorily marked for any finite clause, by means of clause-final markers. There is, however, no difficulty learning the specific markers, as the vast majority of them are numeral phrases, names of internet sites, and the like. The historical development of the current system is intricately bound up in the ongoing loss of the language, and it is to that history that we now turn.

Prior to about 1980, PS had a relatively straightforward Bodic-type evidential system, distinguishing (via clause-final particles) the evidential categories hearsay, eyewitness, inferential 1 (inference through observable evidence), inferential 2 (inference through lack of observable counterevidence), and default (mostly used when a speaker

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was groggy, sleep-deprived, drunk, or otherwise cognitively impaired, and thus unable to make meaningful evidential assertions). The default category was unmarked. Similar systems abound, of course, across the Tibetan sphere of influence.

Apart from deliberate overuse of the inferential 2 category by rebellious teenaged pupils, this system seems to have had universal support throughout the community, until electronic media sowed the seeds of its destruction.

Beginning in the late 1970s, trekking European and Aussie youths left a wake of material largesse across large swaths of the Himalayan region, and the PS community was not left out. By about 1980, nearly every PS household had thrown away its first radio and acquired a color TV set. Cable programming was not far behind, and now (as I have already intimated) nearly every home is broadband-wired and satellite-dish-bedecked. Today, the economy of the PS community is based entirely on trekking; the vast majority of the community is engaged as operators of small tour companies, hostels, restaurants and internet cafés (young men of several neighboring ethnic groups are employed as porters and tour guides for trekkers). Competence in both Nepali and English is universal. Furthermore, as trekking is thoroughly seasonal, the entire community is at leisure for nearly 6 months of the year, and as in all modern societies, this leisure translates into roughly 13 hours per day of television viewing, for the average middle-aged PS individual. Youth divide their time about equally between television, online gaming, and instant messaging or skyping.3

At an early stage, when most homes had radios and a certain level of media competence had been attained across the community, some PS-speaking youths began to extend the existing evidential system to encompass this new source of information. Although the hearsay category might have been deemed appropriate for information gleaned through radio broadcasts, someone instead began to use the word “radio” itself as an evidential marker, instead of any existing one. The first such utterances must have been subconsciously motivated (as are all changes in language that are of any interest), but very quickly some speakers began instead to use the specific frequency or call letters of the station which was their information source.

The subsequent development is not hard to imagine. Now, with over 500 television channels, in addition to innumerable internet sites, shortwave frequencies, and so on, speakers who apply the system uniformly feel it necessary to use evidential markers such as TV CNN, TV 274, Internet Reuters, MSN Messenger, and so on.4

Initially, new evidential category labels were adopted by all speakers, but the emerging complexity of the system quickly became too much for adults to learn. Young people, however, were quite adept at

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by Piotr Pablo Paulsen

learning to make the new distinctions, and to adapt when, for instance, CNN moved from channel 35 to channel 406 on a new satellite system. Sadly, the elderly could not make such adjustments.

The oldest speakers were the first to give up. Harassed and laughed at by their progeny, they gradually reduced their use of the language until they only employed it when the eyewitness form was appropriate, speaking in Nepali or English in all other situations. From there it was a short step to losing the language completely.

Meanwhile, with the introduction of each new information source, a further element of the population, younger each time, was forced into submission. Grandparents could not remember all of the cable channels. Next, the older middle aged could not adapt to new numbers for all the channels when they were rearranged and augmented by the national telecom provider. Finally, the younger middle aged were overwhelmed by the introduction of countless internet information sources, and (after a brief but valiant attempt to use the marker WWW for all utterances), even this segment of the population gave up speaking PS.

The result is that today the PS community (apart from the youngest speakers) is linguistically broken, demoralized, and lacking hope. As one PS oldster put it (speaking in English via skype): “Back in our day, we only had 5 of those evidential thingies. Young people today are crazy. Who can remember what channel a movie was on? I just want to watch TV in peace.” Her husband chimed in: “Nobody cares about speaking proper Sherpa anymore; now it’s all ‘channel 338 this’ and ‘Yahoo Messenger that’. They might as well bury me now. What’s become of our beautiful language? Those kids have ruined it.”

Is PS a dying language? This critical question is a difficult one to answer, because existing models make no predictions for such situations. The key consideration appears to be this: if the advance of new sources of information and interaction continues unabated, it is entirely possible that even young adults may be unable to attain mastery over successive tools, and this could well lead to a situation in which PS is spoken only by children and adolescents. If that should happen, I fear that Pinnacle Sherpa will be lost, a victim of the overwhelming drive towards evidential complexity forced upon it by the information age, in horrible partnership with the cognitive and interactive requirements of the original PS evidential system.

1 The author would like to thank Pete Blackburn for comments on an earlier version of this paper; in fact, Pete provided the most vitriolic round of critical comments I have ever received on any paper. Oh, and Trey Jones also read the earlier draft. His comments didn’t amount to much, but I think I’m supposed to thank him here anyway.

2 Due to serious constraints on my funding, I have not actually visited the PS community, nor, in fact, the country of Nepal. The research reported here has been carried out entirely via instant messaging and skype. In a forthcoming paper, I will propose that these radical new tools may in fact enable all of linguistics to adopt a radically new paradigm for field research.

3 Actually, most youth carry on all three of these activities simultaneously.

4 The astute reader may notice that I have made no attempt to reproduce the actual PS forms. In fact, I do not know what they are, since my elicitations and interviews have been conducted entirely in English.

The Language of PrehistoryMerritt Greenberg and Joseph Ruhlen
Eating the WindAn Anthropological Linguistic Study of the XoŋryClaude Searsplainpockets
SpecGram Vol CLI, No 4 Contents