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Saving Himalayan Languages

By George van Driem



The Himalayas form the mightiest land barrier on the face of our planet. Against this majestic range the world’s two largest linguistic stocks meet, splashing up like a sea on both sides. The Himalayas are first and foremost the domain of Indo-European and Tibeto-Burman families of languages - an overwhelming majority of languages in the Himalayan region belong to either of these two families. Today most indigenous languages of the Himalayas are dying, endangered or threatened with extinction. Only few of them, such as Nepali, Tibetan and Kashmiri, have thrived. Professor George van Driem, at Leiden University, has been working on the documentation of endangered Himalayan languages since 1983.

Indo-European languages range geographically from Colombo (Sinhalese) in the southeast to Reykjavík (Icelandic) in the northwest. Nearly a hundred Indo-European languages are spoken in the Himalayas. The Tibeto-Burman family encompasses well over three hundred languages, and the majority of these languages are found in the Himalayas, particularly in the east.

In addition to Indo-European and Tibeto-Burman, four other major linguistic stocks encroach upon the Himalayan periphery. These language families are Altaic, Daic, Dravidian and Austroasiatic. At the same time, the Himalayas are home to two so-called language isolates, languages which cannot be demonstrated to be related to each other or, indeed, to any other known human tongue, i.e. Burushaski and Kusunda. Well nigh a thousand different languages are spoken in the greater Himalayan region. This is why my two-volume handbook entitled Languages of the Himalayas, which attempts to cover them all, is 1,400 pages long and contains many detailed maps.


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