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Saturday, March 06, 2021

Nepal’s Seke ‘near-extinct’: The six degrees of endangerment of a language

A press release issued by the UN in December 2019 quoted President of the UN General Assembly Tijjani Muhammad-Bande as saying that despite efforts throughout the year, one indigenous language disappears every fortnight.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 10, 2020 7:37:50 am
Nepal Seke language, Seke language Nepal, indigenous language report UN, Indian Express explained A birthday celebration at a building that is home to about 50 speakers of Seke, one of the world’s most obscure languages, in Brooklyn, Dec. 14, 2019. (The New York Times: Diana Zayneh Alhindawi)

Recently, The New York Times reported that the “near-extinct” Nepalese language Seke has just 700 speakers around the world. Of these, 100 are in New York, and roughly half of these 100 stay in one building in the city. Most of the Seke-speaking community in New York stays in the Ditmas Park area of Brooklyn, or in Queens.

The last year, 2019, was the International Year of Indigenous Languages, mandated by the United Nations (UN). A press release issued by the UN in December 2019 quoted President of the UN General Assembly Tijjani Muhammad-Bande as saying that despite efforts throughout the year, one indigenous language disappears every fortnight.

Nepal’s Seke language

According to the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), Seke is one of the over 100 indigenous languages of Nepal and is mainly spoken in the five villages of Chuksang, Chaile, Gyakar, Tangbe and Tetang in the Upper Mustang district.

The dialects from these villages differ substantially and are believed to have varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.

In recent years, Seke has been retreating in the face of Nepali, which is Nepal’s official language and is considered to be crucial for getting educational and employment opportunities outside villages.

According to ELA, difficult conditions at home and job prospects elsewhere have brought speakers of Seke to places such as Pokhara, Kathmandu and even New York. Therefore, the vulnerability of the language is linked to the migration of people to places where Seke is not spoken, which has reduced the intergenerational transmission of the language. Furthermore, the younger generation does not find much use in learning the language, giving preference to Nepali and English.

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Languages in danger?

UNESCO has six degrees of endangerment. These are: safe, which are the languages spoken by all generations and their intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted; vulnerable languages, which are spoken by most children but may be restricted to certain domains; definitely endangered languages, which are no longer being learnt by children as their mother tongue.

Severely endangered are languages spoken by grandparents and older generations, and while the parent generation may understand it, they may not speak it with the children or among themselves. Critically endangered languages are those of which the youngest speakers are the grandparents or older family members who may speak the language partially or infrequently and lastly, extinct languages, of which no speakers are left.

Considering these definitions, Seke may be considered to be a definitely endangered language. As per UNESCO, roughly 57 per cent of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages are safe, about 10 per cent are vulnerable, 10.7 per cent are definitely endangered, about 9 per cent are severely endangered, 9.6 per cent are critically endangered and about 3.8 per cent of all languages are extinct since 1950.

As per the Endangered Languages Project (ELP), there are roughly 201 endangered languages in India and about 70 in Nepal.

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