Tridekavalent Verbs of Telenovelity in Mydlováskji—Śūnyatā Qoɣusun SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 1 Contents Writing a Fieldwork Dissertation—Kai Tak Suvarnabhumi

Classical Pinnacle Sherpa
A living exercise in proto-language reconstruction

Keith W. Slater
Institute for Sinitic Gastronomic Lexicography, Grand Forks, North Dakota

In Slater (2006) I reported on what appeared to be a new form of age-stratified language death in Pinnacle Sherpa: massive, media-driven increases in the complexity of the evidential system caused the oldest speakers, followed by progressively younger generations, to give up use of the language in the face of relentless ridicule by those speakers who were young enough to master the new forms of electronic communication and the associated evidential categories.

It turns out I was wrong. Partly.

Younger speakers do indeed continue to use Pinnacle Sherpa in all of the normal domains of language use, but older speakers have not, as I claimed, “completely lost” the use of Pinnacle Sherpa. Through persistence and deeper investigation, involving literally thousands of skype calls and instant messages, I have discovered that the situation is much more complicated than I thought.

Older speakers have not actually stopped using the Sherpa language, but have simply withdrawn it into their own social circle. For them, Pinnacle Sherpa has become a secret language, used only among trusted associates, which in this case means anyone over 35 years of age. Among themselves, they refer to their argot as “Proper Speech,” or simply “The Language,” or, as one irascible codger put it, “Classical Pinnacle Sherpa.” This last name is surely one which a linguist can love, so I have adopted it as well. To contrast, the evidentially elaborated language now used only by the youngest generations may be referred to as “Modern Pinnacle Sherpa.”

Freed from the pressures of youthful speakers, Classical Pinnacle Sherpa users now feel free to revel in their own sociolinguistic indicators, including the original five-way evidential distinction, unencumbered (as they might put it) by the innovative evidential categories which younger speakers have adopted in recent years. (Presumably the older speakers also feel free to ignore the technology and information sources so beloved by the youth, but I admit I forgot to ask about this.)

So far, so good, and in truth, nothing is really of theoretical interest about the existence of such a secret language, aside from, perhaps, the advanced age demographic to which its use is restricted. But there is, it turns out, a decidedly surprising feature of this secret language, unattested among such private linguistic systems which have been described in the literature, and indeed, unattested among all documented human languages. Namely, Classical Pinnacle Sherpa has, by mutual consent of its speakers, begun to progressively undo its historical changes, such that not just the speakers, but the language itself, is actually becoming older.

Apparently some of these older folks are amateur linguists of no mean talent. One aged lady reports the situation thus: “We just got to thinking and realized that some of our more unusual words were changing, starting to become like other words. Why should we make our oddest words more like other ones? It didn’t make sense, so we just went back to saying them the odder way.”

At first, this folk linguistic description of reversing analogic change struck me as too good to be true, but it really is true. The oldest speakers at first began to recognize the effects of analogic change, and to reverse those changes, thus restoring former irregularities which the language had lost.

It may seem impossible to my linguist compatriot readers, but these intrepid elderly have in fact even gone beyond this first step, and have started to undo historical sound changes as well. As an ancient gentlemen put it: “When we hear the folks from the next mountain over speak, we can see that some of our sounds must have changed. Like the hard sound in ‘ka’ and ‘ko.’ They also have it in ‘ki,’ but our word with the same meaning is pronounced ‘chi.’ That must mean that our hard sound became soft, and we don’t like that change. We’ve changed it back to ‘ki.’ ”

At the same time, Classical Pinnacle Sherpa speakers have begun to give up borrowed words, and even to rediscover and reclaim roots which had been completely abandoned in previous generations.

Space does not here permit a complete elaboration of the historical reversals which are now in process, but the implications are clearly breathtaking. With no younger speakers, Classical Pinnacle Sherpa is not dying, but rather, it lives heartily and it is becoming an older language, progressively undoing the changes of its recent history. Not only so, but the evidence shows that the language is undoing all three major types of historical change: sound changes; analogic changes; and borrowings.

The long-term results of this amazing situation can only be to fullfil the dream that no historical linguist has yet dared to dream: the living reconstruction of proto-Sherpa. This will be a tremendous aid to our understanding of the true history of Sherpa dialects, and indeed, will make perhaps the greatest contribution ever made to Sino-Tibetan reconstruction.

Tridekavalent Verbs of Telenovelity in Mydlováskji—Śūnyatā Qoɣusun
Writing a Fieldwork Dissertation—Kai Tak Suvarnabhumi
SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 1 Contents